Monday, May 31, 2010

Eurovision hangover

I'm not sure I've missed a Eurovision broadcast in the last 25 odd years. It can be wonderful car-crash television with respect to songs, costumes, choreography, etc. I thought the songs in this year's final were about the strongest set I can remember and difficult to pick/guess a winner (especially with the political voting that goes on - have Greece and Cyprus ever not given each other twelve points?). I've instantly forgotten the winning song from Germany (other than the singer had some weird London/German accent and the song was catchy and quirky), but I've got the chorus of the Danish song endlessly repeating in my head! Kind of Abbaesque with a Police sounding bass line. A slow build but catchy chorus (starts about 45 secs in). Too catchy - it's now starting to get on my nerves and needs to be dislodged! Oh god, "wanna know, wanna know, wanna know, what you're looking for. Wanna know, wanna know, wanna know, if you could ask for more ..." Ahhhh!

Some Like It Hot

I watched Some Like It Hot last night for the umpteenth time. The story never seems to date, and it doesn’t matter how many times I watch it, I giggle along. The plot is relatively simple, but perfectly pitched and paced. The script is snare drum tight, with just the right amount of witty banter, slapstick and pathos. And the actors are flawlessly cast and give stellar performances. The best comedy film of all time? Quite possibly. Oh, to be able to write a script this hot.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

Another long day in the garden and phase one of the great wall rebuild is complete. Heaven knows how many hours this has taken, but hopefully it won't need rebuilding again in my life time. Photos are before and after. I think the original construction was simply a piling up of stones that were then covered in soil (we dug wheelbarrow loads of soil out).

My posts this week:
Review of Trail of Blood by S.J. Rozan
A dictionary of sheep
Sheep continued
Review of The American Envoy by Garbhan Downey
Northern housing market on the road to recovery?
Self-flagellation and cultural memory
In defence of ignorance

Saturday, May 29, 2010

In defence of ignorance

I’ve been dipping into Damian Corless’ GUBU Nation again. There’s always a bit of anti-intellectualism at work in every country, and it’s been no different in Ireland over the years. The following quote is from Oliver J Flanagan TD in an anti-contraception speech from 1971. Flanagan was first elected in 1943 with one of his first speeches an attack on Jews (‘There is one thing that Germany did, and that was to rout the Jews out of their country. Until we rout the Jews out of this country, it does not matter what orders you make. Where the bees are there is honey, and where the Jews are there is money’).

‘The Irish people should give serious thought to what the intellectuals of our Parliament have in store for them. The demand for change in the law in this regard is called for by professors, journalists, economists, the doctors of everything and of nothing. They regard themselves as having a monopoly of brains, ability and intelligence. They pride themselves with knowing all things for all men, but when it comes to the real essentials of life they are the most ignorant bunch you could imagine, as with all their intelligence they display great ignorance in relation to the law of God. While some of them profess to be Catholics they openly treat the teachings of Pope Paul IV with contempt, and laugh, sneer and jeer to try and belittle the advice and guidance given by the bishops of this country on a matter in which they have spoken for the good of the nation. God save Ireland from intellectuals … It is as well for the Irish people that there are in high places, a few poor ignorant men in public life, looked down on by the intellectual know-alls, but who are not afraid to stand up in defence of the law of God in a Christian country. … A computer must be fed with truth and correct material in order to produce correct results, and so it is with our conscience. ... Let us hope and trust that there are sufficient proud and ignorant people left in this country to stand up to the intellectuals who are out to destroy faith and fatherland and to replace the law of God and the law of the land with the law of the jungle. There is no such thing as a liberal Catholic ... and the sooner our people realise this to be a fact, the better for success and good luck to fall upon our country.’

Thank heavens for the few poor ignorant men in public life! Contraception was eventually made legal for married couples on prescription in 1979, from 1985 it could be bought by anyone over 18 in a pharmacy, and from 1993 condoms could be sold via a vending machine.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Self-flagellation and cultural memory

Always interesting to read the international medias take on what has been going on in Ireland. Two good overview pieces have recently been published in the Financial Times and The Guardian, and come recommended if you want to get a rough handle of what has been going on here. I thought the following two quotes were particularly interesting, one from a worker who has lost his job, the other from a protestor who has found it difficult to mobilise foot soldiers.

"We never really believed the boom. During the celtic-tiger period we were like, jeez, look at us, this will never last. Irish people were used to shit homes, shit education, shit hospitals. In England, there is a cultural memory of things working. There is no cultural memory in Ireland of things working. The self-flagellation gene in Ireland is very strong – 'cut us to fuck because we're used to being the downtrodden victim'. We almost feel better for it."

"The Irish are the good children of Europe. They take the rod, they don't complain and they all will get sweets at the end. Anger is a private thing in our country; it's there, but we don't express it in public."

The cultural memory of a few hundred years of colonialism, followed by a heavy dose of Catholicism, has seemingly produced a certain amount of fatalism and an expectation of failure and suffering. That the famine statues are placed next to the international financial services centre in Dublin is an interesting juxtaposition given the causes of the present crisis. If some of the recent analysis is correct ('It is no longer a question of whether Ireland will go bust, but when'), then the crises of the 1950s and 1980s are going look like minor blips. Personally, I'm reasonably optimistic that the country will muddle through without going completely bust, but its going to be a bumpy ride, and the self-flagellation gene could to get a good workout.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review of The American Envoy by Garbhan Downey (Guildhall Press, 2010)

Dave Schuurman, a Boston journalist with political connections, expects to get a plum posting from the new US Secretary of State. A minor indiscretion and a YouTube video ensure that the posting is as the US Envoy to Derry in Northern Ireland, helping to build cultural and economic relations between the two countries. On arrival, he’s taken under the wing of Tommy ‘bowtie’ McGinlay, a criminal lawyer with political connections. Schuurman is soon a member of McGinlay’s poker circle that includes the local mayor, newspaper editor and senior cop. He’s also tangled with Tommy’s ultra-feminist niece and local shock radio host, Ellie, and started to date Chris Diaz, the beautiful and ambitious manager of an American pharmaceutical company. Just as he seems to be finding his feet, helping to organise a trip to the US to try and encourage other companies to locate in the area, local teenagers start to die as a result of contaminated drugs seemingly imported from Scotland. Schuurman decides to use his investigative skills and new group of contacts to shut down the drugs gang. But things are not quite what they seem.

Downey, following in the footsteps John B. Keane and others, tells the story of an American envoy’s adventure in Derry through the correspondence between Schuurman and his father and the members of the poker circle. Given the prevalence of email, in an early letter Schuurman spells out the logic of using formal letter writing as security. It seems like a weak argument, used purely to justify the format of the book. And whilst I enjoyed the story, the weakest element for me was the concept of telling it though the letters sent or received by Schuurman. I think my main problem was that the letters were not credible, being too well written by all parties (everybody writes nicely structured, grammatically correct correspondence). They are also too long – who writes really long letters these days, especially when you are either meeting face to face, talking on the phone or webcasting regularly? And how many busy people attach extensive cover notes to letters? They also spell out things on behalf of the reader that would not have been included in correspondence between confidants (for example, at one point Schuurman documents the text messages to which both parties had been privy). Occasionally, the letters are interrupted by notes from Tommy ‘Bowtie’ which add nothing to the story. For me, it would have been preferable for the story to be told in the usual mode of a novel, where the plot and characters could have been explored a bit more extensively. Whilst the format didn’t really work for me, the story was good fun, and Downey demonstrates he can produce a savvy, humorous narrative, with an interesting cast of characters. And the quality of the writing was enough to convince me that I should read some of his other work.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sheep continued

I spent last night and part of today reading Derek Brawn's, Ireland's House Party, which makes for pretty scaring reading with regards to where the Irish housing market is heading - at this stage 40-60% drop in prices, 50% of mortgaged homes in negative equity, and years and years to recover. I've just finished the first full draft of our report on the property crisis in Ireland and, as someone in negative equity, researching it has been a sombre experience. Brawn has a nice description of estate agents (which he was very briefly, and before that an investment banker - so he has a good pedigree in fleecing people):

'Estate agents treat their fellow-countrymen like sheep, to be sheared for all the money they can possibly extract from them, just so they can claim to be a home-owner.'

The subtitle to his book is, 'What estate agents don't want you to know.' He makes a pretty convincing case as to how they tried to pull the wool over people's eyes for as long as possible to keep the party bubbling along. And we all kept dancing like lambs to the slaughter.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Dictionary of Sheep

I was driving round the countryside at the weekend when out of the blue my visitor said, 'I wonder what the dictionary of sheep is?' pointing into a field where a flock were all sporting blue smudges. Interesting, I thought. Dictionary of Sheep. The guy's losing it. Turns out there is a dictionary of sheep. According to Adopt-a-Sheep website, every five years in the UK, "The Shepherd's Guide" is published, listing every marking from every hill farm in the UK. The markings consist of an amalgam of marks and letters. I would have thought that the markings would have been quite localised to prevent sheep grazing on common land becoming mixed-up. I didn't think they'd collate them all together for the whole UK. An example of an old guide can be found here. I can't find a guide for Ireland, but I'm sure there probably was one. It seems to be all electronic tags these days.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Review of Trail of Blood by S.J. Rozan (Ebury Press, 2009)

Lydia Chin tries to mix being a dutiful daughter with operating as a private investigator, but doesn’t always get the balance right. Having recently returned to New York from a trip to California, she’s hired by her mentor, Joel Pilarsky, to help Alice Fairchild, who specialises in holocaust asset recovery, to trace a Chinese official who has fled China with some valuable jewellery. The Shanghai Moon is a mythical brooch formed from two other pieces – jade from an heirloom of a Chinese dynasty and diamonds from an Austrian Jew’s necklace. The necklace belonged to the mother of Rosalie Gilder. Rosalie and her younger brother Paul were amongst the twenty thousand European Jews who made their way to Shanghai before the second world war, her mother hoping to get a later boat, but never making it. Fairchild claims to be representing the interests of the children of Rosalie’s uncle and is keen to reunite the missing jewellery with the family. Whilst trying to track down the missing official, Lydia starts to become acquainted with Rosalie’s story through a number of letters now housed in a holocaust museum. But when Pilarsky is shot dead, the case takes a more sinister turn as it becomes clear that a number of people hope to gain possession of the famed, Shanghai Moon.

Trail of Blood had a number of common characteristics with Fred Vargas’, Have Mercy on Us All, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Like Vargas’ book, the novel has a strong historical component, with the present day story very much connected to family and wider political and social events in the past. Similarly, it trundles along at a fairly quick pace, has good backstory, appealing characters, and interesting plot. That said, the story had a number of elements that I found detracted from my enjoyment. Sometimes the storytelling is a little too explicit, with some clear plot devices used to introduce certain pieces of information or push the story in a particular direction. There are a number of somewhat implausible coincidences and conveniences in terms of people being in the same places at the same time or having access to certain knowledges or information that are very difficult to locate and highly specialised. The dialogue was a little clunky at times and did not always have an authentic ring. And for me, the book was at least fifty pages too long. I noticed that it is published as The Shanghai Moon in the US, which is actually a much better and more appropriate title than the rather generic, Trail of Blood. Overall, a fairly entertaining read, but could have been much more given the strength of the conceptual idea underpinning it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Lazy Sunday Service

A scorcher of a day. Spent seven hours digging out a collapsed and grassed over wall (the neighbour says he last saw the stones over fifty years ago) and laying foundation stones. Truly shattered. There was a reason that ice cold beer was invented. The end of this afternoon is as damn near to being at one with that reason as I'm likely to get.

My posts this week:
Review of The Devil's Garden by Ace Atkins
Appeal of crime fiction?
Review of Chickenhawk by Robert Mason
Many steps ahead - Peeler
Drunk on power
Will dig for food

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Will dig for food

Picture right is of a Harvard professor, a regular visitor to Ireland, who I invited out to the house for the weekend. The deal is - must dig out old wall (covered in grass and nettles) and build a new one for food. Pretty good exchange for both of us, I reckon. He's making a good job of it, except for dropping a rock on my hand (and he's fairly lethal with that crowbar). I must try this more often. I'm sure there are a load of academics out there who could do with the exercise. I only have about another 100 metres to rebuild. Since he's here, and is based up in the North, I've made a start on Garbhan Downey's, The American Envoy, so I can pass it on to him. In exchange, he has given me Philip Kerr's, The Shot. Can't wait to get stuck into that one sometime soon.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Drunk on power

John Charles McQuaid was rarely drunk on power, but he was seldom sober. The Archbishop was used to getting things his own way, but on an October day in 1955 over twenty thousand people turned out to let Ireland’s most powerful cleric know he was over the limit.

This fantastic quote is taken from GUBU Nation by Damian Corless a collection of short essays detailing some of the more ‘grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented’ things to have happened in Ireland’s post-independence history. This particular essay concerns a visit to Ireland by Yugoslavia’s soccer team to play a friendly match. Slighted by the fact that he was not consulted about the match (as he had been three years earlier) and no fan of ‘foreign games’, Archbishop McQuaid mobilised his influence to try and get the match cancelled. First, the Department of Justice told the Football Association of Ireland that they would need to seek permission for the players to enter the country (the first time they’d ever had to do such a thing). Second, the Army band withdrew their services. Third, the FAI were bombarded with public criticism from the forces of Catholicism and its various agencies. One of these groups even wrote to all the Yugoslav players to tell them that they were not welcome. Feeling the pressure, the national broadcaster withdrew its radio coverage. The Yugoslav team arrived at Dublin airport to be met by protestors at godless communism (although no such protest met a Russian delegation that had arrived in Ireland a month previously). The day before the match the Irish trainer withdrew from the game under pressure. The game went ahead and Ireland lost 4-1. McQuaid’s power is legendary and it is said that he got to read and edit all legislation before it was seen by most of the cabinet, let alone the Dail (the Irish parliament). Drunk on power indeed.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Many steps ahead - Peeler

At the tail end of last year I started a story about Harry Rutherford, an Anglo-Irish cop who survived the trenches of the First World War and is working for the Dublin Metropolitan Police in the period immediately after the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War. The working title is A Nowhere Man and I put up a draft of the opening section. I ploughed on for a while and have about about 15,000 words written. The period is fascinating and Harry provides an interesting way to explore a whole set of tensions, caught as he is between two worlds - Protestant/Catholic, gentry/working class, British/Irish, old order/new order, etc. Then yesterday I read a great guest post by Kevin McCarthy over on Crime Always Pays whose book, Peeler, is out next month. And low and behold he had the idea of writing a crime novel set in 1920s Ireland a couple of years ago, and it sounds like he's done a great job of it. Flip-it! Peeler is now on my order list. Hopefully Kevin's left enough room for someone else to squeeze into the same territory.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review of Chickenhawk by Robert Mason (1983, Penguin)

After dropping out of university, and recently married, Robert Mason fulfils a childhood ambition and enrols in the Army in 1964 to learn how to fly helicopters. After scraping through flight school, in 1965 he’s sent to Vietnam to fly Hueys. During his time there he flies over 1,000 missions, dropping off infantry into the jungle and taking out wounded soldiers, often under heavy, sustained fire and/or from booby-trapped sites, and sometimes from barely accessible clearings. Mason spends his time in Nam making deep friendships, watching many of those friends die, dealing with Army inefficiencies, learning how to deal with near death experiences on a daily basis, trying to make do in temporary accommodations, and craving to return to his family.

I rarely read autobiographies, but Chickenhawk caught my eye when visiting the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It is widely touted as one of the best accounts of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a soldier serving there. And for good reason. Mason’s narrative is well written, engaging, and often gripping, having the feel of an authentic account given its matter-of-fact, conversational, and unpretentious style that details both highs and lows, often portraying Mason in a poor or ambivalent light. He captures in detail the everyday training, missions, conversations, action, frivolity and mundanity of Army life. Over the course of the book, one comes to know Mason intimately, his buddies, and the drama and trauma experienced. One thing is clear, Mason and his ilk were performing a role not of their making or choosing, undertaking incredibly brave and foolhardy adventures, all the time blind to the politics playing out both in Nam and at home. And they paid the price in multiple ways – either through injury or death, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or social isolation or family break-up on their return. Chickenhawk is a powerful account of a soldier following his dreams to fly helicopters and finding himself on the front line. The only weakness is around the wider, contextual framing - I would have liked the account to have some further discussion of the conflict, the unfolding politics guiding what was happening, and an overarching sense of the battles and how Mason’s missions fitted into them. Other than that, Chickenhawk is a compelling read.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The appeal of crime fiction?

I read two posts yesterday that made an argument as to why crime fiction appeals to so many readers as a genre. Over on Petrona the case was made that crime is social criticism par excellence, examining the full diversity of social relations and their dysfunctions (through character/action driven plots). Over on International Crime Authors Reality Check, Matt Beynon Rees makes a similar case that crime fiction provides an entertaining and informative dose of social realism, but extends the argument to suggest that in doing so it makes unpalatable places knowable and bearable by revealing their social complexities, histories and politics, and placing an order and rationality on them.

I agree with both analyses, but I also want to suggest that crime fiction also provides a mirror for readers to reflect on, think through and make sense of their own lives, rather than simply coming to understand the Other (other people, other situations, other places). In particular it opens up vistas in which to critically reflect on the diverse, complex and contingent workings of power and its resistance, and our own experiences of them. In crime novels, a consistent feature is that the various manifestations of power (inducement, manipulation, coercion, seduction, exploitation, domination, intimidation, violence) and resistance (non-consent, non-cooperation, negotiation, disobedience, protest) are examined in a plethora of contexts.

Now, if I was Margot over at Confessions of a Mystery Writer I would now launch into a series of well honed essays on each of these forms of power and resistance and provide loads of examples from the crime fiction canon. But alas, this is as far as my insights go for today, other than to say that Hans Fallada’s brilliant novel, Alone in Berlin, explores all of them (and my review provides some engagement with the contingent and relational mobilisation and effects of power in Nazi Germany).

In short, my two cents worth is that crime fiction appeals because it whilst it does provide social criticism and open up the world of the Other, it also allows us to critically reflect about ourselves and our place in the world, especially in relation to how power is mobilised and expressed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Review of The Devil’s Garden by Ace Atkins (Berkeley, 2009)

In September 1921, the silent movie star, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, travelled to San Francisco to spend two weeks partying in a set of suites in the St Francis Hotel. In a haze of bootleg booze and dancing to jazz, Arbuckle and his cronies entertain minor starlets and nightclub dancers. But something goes awry and the actress, Virginia Rappe, starts to writhe, twist and groan, before expiring. The D.A. alleges that Arbuckle crushed Rappe to death and the newspapers are having a field-day peddling the scandal, but there is much amiss about the case. The accounts of those attending the party conflict, the prosecution is hiding witnesses denying the defence access to them, certain body parts are missing after the autopsy, and Randolph Hearst’s newspapers in particular seem to be baying for Arbuckle to be convicted. Arbuckle’s defence team hire the Pinkerton detective agency to counter the prosecution case, assigning a young Dashiell Hammett to investigate. Struggling with illness, and with a young wife who is pregnant, Hammett works to discover the truth, despite the fact that all parties, including Arbuckle, have secrets they want to remain hidden.

As Ace Atkins details in a behind the book feature included at the end of the book, Dashiell Hammett is one of his heroes. The author of The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest and The Thin Man, did indeed work on the famous ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle case for Pinkerton’s. Plotted through meticulous research, The Devil’s Garden charts the full case, and the actions of the various protagonists, especially Arbuckle and Hammett. At one level, the research is the book’s great strength, placing the reader in the geography and social life of San Francisco of the 1920s. At another level, it is its weakness, with the narrative feeling like a popular history text written in the format of a novel. Indeed, it is impossible to know what are historical facts and what is the product of Atkins imagination. In some ways, the story is much more complex than would usually be plotted in a novel; the Arbuckle case was multifaceted, with many central and bit part actors, tied together through messy and convoluted relationships and plot. Whilst Atkins does a reasonable job to put a shape on it all, the narrative is quite bitty, and the characters feel oddly flat at times, lacking in depth and substance. Atkins is clearly a skilled writer, but by so slavishly following the history of the Arbuckle case, and all its various threads, he has ended up with a story that is weakened somewhat by it. It might have perhaps worked better to have just followed the case through the eyes of Hammett to provide a single, coherent thread in which a smaller number of characters are elaborated in detail. That said, on balance I enjoyed the book, and I’d be interested to read some of Atkin’s books, especially Crossroad Blues of which I have heard good things.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Lazy Sunday Service

My head is still reeling a bit from attending the Kildare Readers Festival yesterday. I thoroughly enjoyed the event, learnt a massive amount, and met a bunch of very interesting people. I’m still trying to decide whether it’s better to talk before or after a really great speaker. I followed John MacKenna, who writes well crafted prose and can orate it beautifully. I write functional prose and am going to have work on the reading. I went too fast and perhaps naively chose to read from the very start of the book, rather than selecting a particular passage. I also went on too long. Tricia Groves had picked three short, really strong passages to read that worked very well to give a sense of the characters and the book in general. Dermot Bolger, who hosted the panel, did a superb job of keeping things light, finding connections, throwing in amusing anecdotes, and asking good questions.

In the early evening I got to spend a bit of time chatting with John Connolly and Stuart Neville, who were both good company. And their session was great entertainment. John Connolly really knows how to work an audience, providing well thought out answers inter-dispersed with anecdotes and funny asides, and if you have the opportunity to go to one of his signings I thoroughly recommend it. He doesn’t so much present a reading as give a performance. Stuart asked some interesting questions to open things out and they had a grand old natter about ... stuff (I’m not even going to try and summarize – stuff covers it). John is probably exhausted at this stage; due to the ash cloud instead of flying to Scotland, he got a taxi at gone ten o’clock to Larne (about 3 hours drive north) for a ferry leaving at 7.15 this morning to make a lunch time gig. To my surprise I got mentioned twice, John saying that he thought that The Rule Book was a ‘fantastic read’, which really made my day – one, that he’d read it, and two, that he’d enjoyed it. After the signings, John set off and I sat in the bar until nearly one o’clock chatting to Stuart and his partner, swapping yarns. Great stuff all together.

My posts this week:
Review of The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston
Academic blogging event
Stakeout: Short Story
Dezoning disputes
Review of The People's Manifesto by Mark Thomas
Kildare Readers Festival
Promo trailer for The White Gallows
300,000 reasons to wonder about the world

Friday, May 14, 2010

300,000 reasons to wonder about the world

300,000 seems to be a recurring number for the day. The first three occurrences were in today's Irish Times, the other overheard in a queue:

1) the UK is borrowing £300,000 per minute
2) Berlusconi's wife is to receive €300,000 per month in alimony
3) 300,000 people are estimated to have so far died in the conflict in Dafur
4) there are 300,000 empty houses in Ireland

£300,000 per minute! Would anybody notice if 5 seconds of every minute was siphoned into the accounts of various charities? Is it possible to spent €300,000 a month on oneself? Couldn't some of this money be redirected to sorting out the issues in Dafur? We can argue over the 300,000 empty houses figure since I'm responsible for it (and its quite strange to hear someone discussing your research), but there's little dispute that whilst the average house price used to be above €300,000 at the peak of the market in Ireland it is c.40% less now. Sometimes one has to wonder about the societies we've built. It's no wonder that crime fiction writers have a never ending supply of stories.

Promo trailer for The White Gallows

I've now got a short promo trailer for The White Gallows, which has been uploaded onto YouTube. It's not quite factually correct - the book is not in bookshops yet (release date is June 12th), but it is listed on Amazon now with the cover picture.

I'm slowly getting on top of things. I managed to send off copyedit queries for the second edition of Key Thinkers on Space and Place this week - it was 1,200 pages doubled spaced, so I can't say I'm looking forward to the proofreading. Next stop is a total overhaul of my website, which will probably take a couple of weeks.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Kildare Readers Festival

The Kildare Readers Festival takes place in Naas this Friday through Sunday. The headline act is John Connolly and Stuart Neville who are on at 19.30 on Saturday evening and I'm looking forward to lurking in the audience and hearing what they have to say (and hopefully getting copies of their books signed). I'm on a panel with Dermot Bolger, Patricia Groves and John MacKenna on Saturday at noon. I'm hopeful that the three of them should guarantee some kind of audience and it'll be interesting to chat with them. I'm kind of looking forward to it; though I'm also a little apprehensive given it'll be my first time participating in one of these things. I could do with an actor to do the reading as it's quite a bit of dialogue and I'll probably end up reading all the character's voices in the same accent and tone. I shouldn't imagine that's going to be very entertaining. I better start practising.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Review of The People’s Manifesto by Mark Thomas (Ebury Press, 2010)

In early 2009, stand-up comedian and activist, Mark Thomas, toured Britain asking his audience for policies to tackle the social and economic issues that concerned them. The process was simple – the audience were given forms at the start of the show and asked to make suggestions. Thomas would then weed out doubles, bin the crazies, and then head on stage to discuss the 60-80 left, debating them with the audience (and chairing arguments between audience members), chucking in a dose of satire for good measure. At the end of the show, the audience voted for their favourite policy. The People’s Manifesto is the result – a list of the forty policies that won.

This is a short book that after a brief introduction simply lists out the forty policies, each with a one to four page summary of the rationale for its inclusion in the People’s Manifesto. Like his stage act, Thomas blends serious argument with humour to make each case, and I laughed several times as I worked my way through. I'm now thinking of using Thomas' method as an ice-breaker in a class I'm running in June on 'participation, praxis and policy'; should be interesting to see what people come up with. Whilst I was lukewarm to many of the proposed policies there were some that I think are worth exploring in more detail, including:

1. Party manifestos should be legally binding
3. [Marketing] Models should be chosen at random from the electoral roll
5. People who allow their dog to shit on the pavement without cleaning it up should be forced to wear it as a moustache
17. Everyone should be allowed to phone in work one day a month a claim a ‘fuck it’ day off.
22. Politicians should have to wear tabards displaying the names and logos of the companies with whom they have a financial relationship, like a racing driver
23. There should be a public referendum before going to war
25. There should be an age of consent for religion
30. To introduce a Tobin tax on currency transactions
33. The garment trade should print the age of the person who made each item in the label.
36. The CEOs and board members of any company convicted of fraud should be forced to dress as pirates in whatever job they get in the future.

My major gripe is that the book is too short. Much, much too short. A small format book, it only takes an hour or so to whisk through it, and all of the entries would have benefited from further explication as they all offered loads of opportunity for a more detailed analysis and satire. Basically, I wanted more! More about the shows, more about the policies that made it into the book, and more about the ones that didn’t. Otherwise an amusing way to pass an hour and get a dose of political sensibilities.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Here's my entry for Jason Duke's Red Hot Writing Competition.

The premise for this story is simple – a ‘talking heads’ piece involving two, long in the tooth, unreconstructed male cops sitting in a car all night on a stakeout.

‘Do you know something, Harry? I’ve stopped fancying women.’

‘What?’ Harry had the passenger seat tipped back as far as it would go, his eyes closed.

‘I said, I’ve stopped fancying women.’ Pete kept his gaze fixed on the back door of The Village Tavern, his hands resting on the steering wheel.

‘I got that. I’m just not sure what you’re trying to say. Are you, like, y’know …’

‘No, no. Jesus. For fuck’s sake, just cos you stop fancying women doesn’t mean you’re a fucking fudge-nudger. What I’m trying to say is …’ Pete trailed off, then let out a deep sigh.

‘For Christ’s sake, Pete, what the fuck are you trying to say?’

‘I dunno. Forget it. I was just saying … I dunno what I was saying.’

‘They’ve got pills for it now, y’know. Viagra or whatever the hell they are.’

‘What?’ Pete turned his gaze from the door to his partner.

‘I said, they’ve got pills for it. Impotency. Y’know, limp dick and all that.’

‘I’m not fucking impotent! Jesus. I can get the beast hard as fucking nails any time I want. Use it as a fucking sword. What I’m saying is … I mean, what I’m trying to say is, I don’t want to.’

‘You don’t want to?’ Harry opened an eye and stared across at Pete.

‘Used to be a time that I’d wanna fuck anything in a skirt. She could be pug-ugly, or semi-retarded, or both; it didn’t matter, if she had a tits and a hole, I’d fancy a piece of her.’

‘Nice. And I thought you were one of those so-called new men. Respected women and all that.’ He closed his eye again. ‘What’s your point?’

‘My point is, I’ve stopped fancying women. Take Chloe Gaines,’ he said referring to the best looking cop in their station, ‘she’s the fucking business, right? A body men would die for, smart, funny, the works. I …’

‘Chloe Gaines?’ Harry interrupted. ‘She’s way out of your league; different fucking stratosphere. My advice is, just forget about her.’

‘That’s my point! I don’t need to forget about her. I’m profoundly indifferent to her. She could get in the back of this car wearing nothing but her handcuffs and I wouldn’t care.’

‘Good, because she’d be getting in for me not you, you fucking sap.’

‘In your dreams.’

‘Well, I’d be the only one who could actually give her what she wants. Look, Pete, is there a point to all of this? I mean, what do you want me to say?’

‘I don’t want you to say anything! I just … Jesus. Forget it. I was just killing time.’

‘Well, that’s the fucking problem right there – killing time. Sitting around for fucking hours at a time waiting for some gobshite to make a fucking mistake. It starts messing with your head. Too much time to think shit over so that small things become fucking monsters. That’s what’s going on here – you’re head’s all messed up. Wires have got crossed. Why don’t you put the radio on?’

‘It’ll drain the battery.’

‘Got to be better than listening to the fucked up voice in your head.’

‘Thanks, Harry. It’s nice to know that someone cares.’ Pete turned on the radio and a song from the 1980s purred through the speakers.

‘No bother. What are friends for?’

‘Here we go.’


‘Jimmy Burke’s just tumbled out the door.’

‘Fuck!’ Harry pushed himself upright, his belly folding over his belt.

* * *

‘I’ll swap you some coffee for some hot chocolate,’ Harry offered.

‘What?’ Pete replied, drumming on the steering wheel in time to a Kinks number playing on the radio.

‘I said, I’ll swap you some coffee for a sup of your hot chocolate.’

‘No thanks.’

‘Ahh, come on. I’ll be fucking buzzing if I have to sup this stuff all night.’

‘Well, you need it, you’re practically comatose. What’s wrong, you not getting any kip at home?’

‘Fucking kids on the estate; always fucking shouting. Little bastards need stringing up.’

‘Four of them are yours.’

‘As I said, the fuckers need stringing up. So, you tight bastard, are you going to swap me some hot chocolate or not?’

‘Well, since you asked so nicely …’

‘Thanks.’ Harry reached in behind the seats and fumbled around for the flask.

‘Did you hear that Frankie Tuoey’s being transferred to CAB?’ Pete said referring to the Criminal Assets Bureau.

‘He’s what? That fat bastard?’ Harry turned back in his seat and screwed the flask cap off. ‘He couldn’t add up his shopping bill.’

‘He’s the coming man apparently.’

‘Only if he jerks himself off. Jesus, Frankie Tuoey. For fuck’s sake!’

‘What, you think you’d have been a better bet?’

‘Jesus, Donald fucking Duck would have been a better bet. Even you would have been a better bet. Talk about a fucking cushy job – sitting in a nice, warm office pissing about on a computer all day; surfing the fucking internet.’

‘I’m behind Donald Duck in the pecking order? Thanks a lot, Harry.’

‘No bother. There’s no harm in you knowing your place. If it’s any consolation, you’re ahead of Wily Coyote.’

‘And who are you? Bugs Bunny?’

‘Top Cat.’

‘Top Cat? You’re fucking joking me. More like Mutley. Give me back that chocolate, you fucking chancer.’ Pete reached out for the cup and flask.

‘Give over, you sap.’ Harry tried to swat Pete’s hand away. ‘You touchy bastard.’

‘Come-on, give it here.’ Pete made a grab for the cup.

‘For fuck’s sake.’ Harry stared down at the stain spreading on his stretched shirt. ‘What the fuck did you do that for? You barmpot.’

‘Stop moaning. It’s already covered in ketchup.’

‘That could have scolded me if hadn’t been half-cold.’

‘Where the fuck did they come from?’


‘Those fuckers.’ Pete gestured out the window to where a group of men with hooded tops were gathered round a car at the back of the bar.

‘For fuck’s sake, how long have they been there?’ Harry asked, dropping the flask and cup into the foot well and reaching for the camera sitting on the dashboard.

‘How should I know? You’re the one meant to be using the camera.’

‘And that means you stop using your eyes?’ He streamed off a series of shots. ‘Fuck. Fucking Frankie Tuoey. Fat bastard.’

* * *

‘Johnny’s gonna have a fuckin’ fit,’ Harry said scrolling through the lurid green night shots on the back of the camera. ‘I couldn’t get a photo of the reg.’

‘Just drop it, will you, you’re a like a broken record. You’re going to run the batteries flat on that thing.’

‘There’re spares in the back. Jesus. Are you sure you didn’t catch it?’

‘If you didn’t with that thing, how the hell would I see it? Just relax will you, you’re putting me on edge. Can’t get everything. Besides, what do they expect, what they’re paying us?’

‘Jesus, you’re not going to start on that again, are you? We’re paid what we’re paid; the economy’s gone to hell in a handbasket. We’re too small a country to spend our way out of it.’

‘We didn’t create the bloody crisis, but we’re the ones they expect to bail them out. And the same the fuckers who got us into the shit are the one’s that are still in power. It’s not right.’

‘Give it a rest, will you. And you call me a broken record!’

‘I’m just saying, that’s all. Fucking take home pay is down twenty percent.’

‘Tell me about it. I’ve got four kids who all think that money grows on trees.’

‘Well, it’s not right.’

‘You’re right, it’s not right, now shut the fuck up. Shit, I can’t believe we didn’t get a good shot of that car. Johnny’s gonna flip his lid.’

‘You’re going round in circles.’

‘This is important. We’ve been sitting here for four fucking hours for that shot.’

‘Maybe there’s CCTV? Got him on a traffic camera or something?’

‘Yeah, there’s that. Fuck!’ He put the camera back on the dashboard and massaged his eyes.

‘How much longer do we have to hang round here?’

Pete glanced at his watch. ‘Two hours, give or take.’

‘Shit. I’m dying for a slash.’

‘There’s a bottle in the back.’

‘Fuck that. I’m going in that bush over there.’ Harry gestured out the window and shoved open the door. ‘If anyone else shows up, for fuck’s sake, take some shots. And keep the camera facing that way; I don’t want the rest of the squad jealous of the old marriage tackle.’

‘Yeah, right. You’re fucking delusional. It’s going to take you five minutes hunting to find the maggot.’

‘Fuck you.’ The door slammed shut.

* * *

‘Kenny told me a great joke last night,’ Harry said referring to his eldest child. ‘Two elephants fall over a cliff. Boom! Boom!’

‘What?’ Pete’s head was tipped back, leaning against the headrest.

‘Two elephants fall over a cliff. Boom! Boom!’


‘You want me to explain it to you? Jesus, Pete. It’s a Tommy Cooper gag. Two elephants fall over a cliff. What the hell happens?’ He paused waiting for an answer. ‘Two big, heavy fuckers smash into the ground. Boom! Boom!’ He slapped his hands in time. ‘Jesus. How the fuck did you pass the entrance exam?’

‘Right. Very good,’ Pete said without laughing. ‘Here’s one for you. How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?’

‘Fucked if I know.’



‘And you’re calling me thick, you gombeen. How many surrealists …’


‘Never mind. Jesus. What time is it?’

‘Four thirty. It’ll soon be getting light. Half an hour more and we’re out of here, thank fuck.’

‘Talk about a waste of time.’ Pete rolled his neck. ‘It can’t be good for us sitting like this all night. It’s like sitting on a plane; we’ll get deep-vein thrombosis or whatever the hell it is. What I need right now is a good massage.’

‘Saucy Sandra’s will be closed by now.’ Harry failed to stifle a yawn. ‘Oh, fuck,’ he muttered, rubbing his face.

‘You have to take everything to its base level, don’t you? A neck rub, that’s all I’m after. Work the knots out; my back muscles are like coiled rope.’

‘Well, she can work on my coiled rope any time she wants. Saucy cow.’

‘In your dreams. It’s too short to get a knot into it in the first place. Here we go. You got that camera ready?’

Two men had exited the back door of the bar. The shorter of the two caught the older man full in the face with a punch sending him sprawling backwards.

‘Shit!’ Pete clicked open the door.

Harry grabbed his sleeve. ‘Give it a second.’ He reeled off some more shots as the shorter man, shoved his unbalanced victim in the chest sending him to the ground. He followed up with several kicks to the man’s head and back.

‘Boom, boom,’ Pete muttered.

‘I’d say that’s him done,’ Harry said.

The shorter man was leaning over the prone figure, talking angrily.

‘The guy on the ground is Mickie Stewart,’ Harry said lowering the camera as the attacker disappeared back through the door. ‘Drives an articulated lorry. Sometimes does runs to Europe and brings back a little extra cargo. By the look of it, he’s just fucked up.’

‘Who was the other guy?’ Pete asked, closing the door.

‘Fuck knows. Wee, little, hard man, wasn’t he? Had a boxer’s strut.’

They watched the body unfurl itself, Stewart getting gingerly to his feet, staggering away from the bar, massaging his back.

‘I bet he could do with Sandra’s loving touch,’ Harry said. ‘You got any more of that hot chocolate left?’

* * *

There was a knock on the passenger window.

Harry cracked open an eye and pressed the button to lower the pane. ‘Garda Gaines. Good job you’re not wearing handcuffs.’

‘What?’ she said staring at the chocolate and ketchup stains on his shirt, the fetid air in the car wafting out.

‘Romeo here,’ Harry jerked his thumb across at Pete, ‘would have to look profoundly disinterested.’


‘Ignore him,’ Pete interjected. ‘He’s acting the bollix. He thinks he’s got a shot at you.’

‘In his wet dreams,’ she said smiling, internally rolling her eyes. If Harry McKenna ever came onto her he’d be digging his balls out from under his chin.


‘So, how did you get on? Everything go to plan?’ she asked.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Harry lied. ‘No bother. We’re professionals, you know.’

‘Yeah, right,’ Gaines said doubtfully. ‘You had a party?’ She asked gesturing at Harry’s shirt and the burger and chocolate wrappers in the back of the car.

‘No need to be jealous. We’ll invite you next time as long as you bring a friend.’

‘I’d sooner walk naked down O’Connell Street.’

‘Tell us the time and date and we’ll be there.’

‘I bet you would, you letches,’ she said unable to hide her distaste. ‘Johnny Cronin says that you can stand down now.’

‘That’s Inspector Cronin to you,’ Harry snapped.

‘His exact phrasing was, “Tell those two gobshites they can stand down”.’

‘I’ll see you in my wet dreams in an hour,’ Harry said testily and raised the window. ‘Come-on, let’s get out of here. Frigid cow.’

‘Frigid? She’s got more balls than you, you sap. I’d say that was Gaines five, McKenna nil.’ Pete turned the ignition key, the engine ticking over but not starting. ‘I told you it would run flat.’

‘Fuck! Cronin’s going to flip his lid.’

‘Two fucking elephants,’ Pete said, hitting the steering wheel. ‘Boom! Boom!’

Monday, May 10, 2010

Review of The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston (Ballantine Books, 2009)

Suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after his teaching career is derailed by tragedy, Webster Fillmore Goodhue (Web) has taken to major league slacking and pissing off everyone he meets, including his best friend, Chev, who runs a tattoo parlour and is keeping him afloat. Po Sin, the parent of a child he used teach, thinks that the only way to get Web back on track is to get him back to work, though working for Clean Team, a company that cleans up major trauma crime scenes hardly seems appropriate. But Web takes to the task surprisingly well. Whilst cleaning up the brains of a Malibu suicide, Web finds himself flirting with the man’s bereaved daughter, Soledad. Shortly after the daughter asks a favour. Despite the alarm bells ringing in his head, Web finds himself cleaning up a mess created by her half-deranged brother. Soon after Clean Team are involved in a dirty tricks war with a rival company and Web is drawn unwittingly into a smuggling operation. Life has just got a whole lot weird, but somehow the dark arts of trauma clear-up might just save Web from his grief.

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (TMAEASD) is a blast. I loved it from the first page to the last. Huston’s dialogue is to die for – highly realistic, pitch-perfect exchanges that are smart, funny and often poignant. The principal characters of Web, Chev, Soledad, Po Sin, and Gabe are well drawn and credible, and by the end of the book I felt I knew them pretty well. The story, whilst not for the faint hearted, is well paced and plotted, being multi-layered and textured, with a nice blend of subplots. And I now know a heck of a lot about how crime scenes are cleaned up! I don’t want to pre-judge my best reads of the year choices, but I’ll be pretty surprised if TMAEASD isn't on it. I’ve already recommended it to friends and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Huston’s other books.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Lazy Sunday Service

I spent a good chunk of yesterday re-building a dry stone wall and boy, do I know about it now. Everything aches. I also decided to restart work on the third McEvoy novel (provisionally titled Land and Honey). I stopped work on it last summer, 50 to 70 pages from completion, whilst I waited to see what would happen with The White Gallows. Given that TWG is published in June, I thought I'd better get back to it. Hopefully it won't take too long to finish off. I'm going to try and read my way back into it this week and see what I make of it.

My posts this week
Sweet dreams (short story)
What has been happening with land rezonings?
April reviews
Review of Leather Maiden by Joe Lansdale
The end of champagne lifestyles at the taxpayer expense?
Short story by numbers
Review of Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Irish crime writing baseball team

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Irish Crime Writing Baseball Team

Crime Scraps have proposed an English crime writers baseball team, suggesting that only the US and Scotland could rustle up a team to challenge his line-up. I posted a comment proposing an Irish team that would give the Anglos a decent game. With youth on their side and hurling in their blood, I actually think the Irish would play a more aggressive and entertaining game. Anyway, I thought I'd re-post the team here (in a slightly different order as Adrian McKinty has already said he's prepared to take it on the noggin to get to first base). I'm not sure if it's a good idea to place a baseball bat into the hands of these folk, but I'm sure they'd give most teams a run for their money.

1. Adrian McKinty
2. Gene Kerrigan
3. Colin Bateman
4. John Connolly
5. Ken Bruen
6. Declan Hughes
7. Declan Burke
8. Arlene Hunt
9. Brian McGilloway

Reserves: Benjamin Black, Tara French, Alex Barclay

Friday, May 7, 2010

Review of Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Vintage Crime, translated 1967, published in Swedish in 1965)

The body of a young woman is dredged from a canal on the inland waterways of Sweden, roughly halfway between Stockholm and Gothenburg. The case is assigned to Martin Beck, First Detective with Homicide Squad of the National Police, based in Stockholm. Initially, identifying the woman and how she ended up in the lock is a complete mystery. Slowly, Beck and his colleagues start to piece together who she is and her final couple of days, but identifying her killer proves to be a more difficult task given the lack of eye witnesses or forensic evidence.

Roseanna forms part of my Classic Crime Fiction Curriculum Challenge; one of a set of ten must-read crime novels published before 1970. It was recommended because it’s credited with introducing a new kind of crime writing – socially realist police procedurals that provided accounts of the everyday lives of ordinary police officers, the interlinking of various agencies, the banal politics of personal and institutional interactions, the mundane and tedious practices of detection, and the role of crime in society. The police officers are, for the most part, ordinary people doing difficult jobs, trying to balance home commitments with the demands of being a detective. And this is what is striking about Roseanna. There is a sense of progression, but it is not driven along at breakneck speed, with an endless succession of cliffhangers. Instead the story meanders along at a relatively sedate pace, detailing how the case is patiently and dogmatically investigated, eventually reaching a relatively understated climax. In fact, the whole book feels a little understated, telling the story in a quite functional style, with little to no back story concerning the characters, and no excess description. The characterisation is fine, although I never really felt I got to know any of them to any great extent, and the plotting is carefully constructed. I suspect that if Sjowall and Wahloo were to seek publication for Roseanna today they would be encouraged to spice up the story, rev up the pace, and add in a whole lot of tension, and I guess I’m so attuned to that now that I spent the first fifty pages wondering when things were going to change gear. But the gear change is really not needed; sometimes less is more. Nevertheless, I find it quite difficult to conceive Roseanna as a book that broke the mould and started a new way of writing crime fiction given the vast quantity of work that follows in their path, some of which advances what they started and branches off in new directions. That said, it is a fine piece of work that reads just as well now as it no doubt did forty years ago.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Short story by numbers?

I spent part of last night catching up on reading some blogs and came across an interesting post on Pulp Serenade about how to churn out a succession of short stories using the method of Lester Dent (pen name Kenneth Robeson and creator of 'Doc Savage') who was a pulp master in the 1930s grinding out up to 200,000 words a month. Dent claimed to have created the perfect formula for compelling stories c.6,000 words in length, which were accepted for publication without fail. These effectively boil down to the following (a fuller explanation from Dent in an article first published in 1936 available here).

1—FIRST LINE, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.

2—The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)

3—Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in Action.

4—Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of first 1500 words.

5—Near end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.


1—Shovel more grief onto the hero.

2—Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:

3—Another physical conflict.

4—A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.


1—Shovel the grief onto the hero, who continues to fight back, most heroically.

2—Hero makes some headway, and corners the villains or somebody in:

3—A physical conflict.

4—A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.


1—Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.

2—Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist).

3—The hero extricates himself, using HIS OWN skill, training or brawn.

4—The mysteries remaining—one big one held over to this point will help grip interest—are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.

5—Final twist, a big surprise. (This one can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “treasure” a dud, etc.)

6—The snapper, the punch line, to end it."
Next story - vary one or more of the following:
1—A different murder method for villain to use.
2—A different thing for villain to be seeking.
3—A different locale.
4—A menace which is to hang like a cloud over hero.

I think I might have a go at using this formula in the next couple of months and see what I come up with, perhaps reducing it down a little in length. All I've got to now is come up with a story that involves four 'surprising plot twists'. However it turns out it should at least be exciting, right? Thanks to Cullen Gallagher at Pulp Serenade for sharing.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Review of Leather Maiden by Joe Lansdale (Vintage Crime, 2008)

Cason Statler was nominated for a Pulitzer for his journalism but indiscretions with the newspaper boss’ wife and step-daughter led to the door, and after a bit of bumming around he joined the military post 9/11 and ended up in Iraq. Discharged he’s drifted back to the small East Texas town of Camp Rapture to take up a post as columnist for the local paper. Still haunted by the ghosts of the past, he drinks too much and stalks his ex-wife, trying to find a rhythm to a life out of sync. On the computer he’s inherited from the previous columnist he finds a story concerning a beautiful college student who disappeared six months previously on a late night run to a fast-food restaurant. Sensing possibilities for a couple of follow-up columns he starts to investigate the young woman’s life to find himself soon drawn into a web of deceit, blackmail and murder.

Joe Lansdale has long been one of my favourite authors and Leather Maiden confirms why. His stories are earthy, fecund, and often dark, exploring the underbelly of society. Delivered in a back-porch storytelling style, he expertly immerses the reader in East Texan landscape and its peoples. There’s no better person at writing noir with a comic twist. He’s particularly good at portraying colourful characters that teeter on the edge of normality, yet making them seem everyday rather than caricature. And the dialogue, as per usual, is to die for: the conversations crackle off the page (the verbal battles between Cason and his editor are particularly entertaining). The pacing is spot-on and the plotting well conceived, although it gets a little pedestrian after the halfway point and the ending was a little telegraphed and flat. Whilst not quite as strong as some of his other works (the bar is set damn high), this is nevertheless superior stuff. I can’t wait now to get hold of Vanilla Ride in which Hap and Leonard, the most compelling partnership in contemporary fiction, return after a number of years.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

April reviews

April may have been a strange month, but I managed to get back to my reading ways. Although I only managed to post 9 reviews, I actually read 12 books. The remaining reviews will appear this week and next. Probably no bad thing as two of those three are also five star reviews and picking a book of a month in one that had four in would be tough. Choosing between The Grave in Gaza and Expiration Date is bad enough, but my nod goes ever so slightly to the former.

The Grave in Gaza by Matt Beynon Rees *****
Old Dogs by Donna Moore ****
Motor City Blue by Loren Estleman ***
Truth by Peter Temple ****
Paying For It by Tony Black ***
Criminal Summer by Luigi Guicciardi ***
A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos ****
Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas ***
Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski *****

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sweet Dreams

This is my contribution to the Sweet Dreams flash fiction challenge set by Patti over at Pattinase. Here's Patti's set-up: "It begins in a food/drink establishment of some sort. The radio/juke box/band is playing 'Sweet Dreams' by the Eurythmics. A red-headed woman in an electric blue dress comes through the door. And then what?"

And here's my story:

Kyle was hiding at the rear of the diner, facing the door, his back to a wall, head tucked into his shoulders.

The Eurythmics were playing on the jukebox, Annie Lennox warbling in a hypnotic mantra. ‘Sweet dreams are made of this.’

He moved the salt shaker in time to the music, sliding it nervously back and forth across the formica top. Jimmy should have arrived by now. Should have arrived half an hour ago.

The front door swung open and a beautiful young woman in a spray-on, electric blue dress entered.

And who am I to disagree?’ Kyle muttered, instinctively craning his neck to sneak a better look.

It had to be a movie star or a model that’d lost their bearings and accidentally drifted into the neighbourhood. Anybody with those kinds of looks left in the first red Porsche that coasted along Main Street; and they only came back for marriages and funerals.

The chatter of the few, late evening patrons died, heads turning to take in the new arrival.

I’ve travelled the world and the seven seas. Everybody is looking for something.’

The woman’s eyes scanned the room and locked on his gaze. She smiled, gave a small wave, and started to head towards him, every pair of eyes in the joint following her progress.

He slid back down into his chair, the song churning in his head. ‘Some of them want to use you. Some of them want to get used by you. Some of them want to abuse you. Some of them want to be abused.’

She pulled to stop next to his table.

I wanna use you and abuse you. I wanna know what's inside you. Hold your head up, movin' on. ’

He kept his head down, avoiding eye contact, hoping that the poor deluded woman would go away. He’d no idea who she was.

‘Kyle Morgan?’ she asked cheerily.

Keep your head up, movin' on.’

He lifted his eyes from her exquisite, tanned legs and squinted up at her beautiful face – sparkling blue eyes, high cheekbones, straight nose and wide mouth, framed by a shock of auburn hair.

Hold your head up, movin' on.’

‘You are Kyle Morgan, right?’ She smiled hesitantly, revealing a set of perfect white teeth.

Keep your head up!

‘Who wants to know?’

‘I do, who do you think? Is anybody sitting here?’ she pointed at the chair facing him.

‘I, er …’

She pulled out the chair and dropped down, her head tipping back, letting out a dramatic sigh.

‘These shoes are killing me.’ She angled her foot out so he could see one of the electric blue stilettos.

Sweet dreams are made of this.’

He nodded, unsure what to say, trying not to let his gaze plunge down the dress’ neckline to her cleavage, and failing.

Who am I to disagree?

‘The cat’s got your tongue, hey?’ she mocked, aware of the power of her beauty. ‘Well that makes a change.’ She held out a slender hand. ‘Mr Freeman sent me.’

‘Mr Freeman?’ Kyle repeated, ignoring her hand, the song dropping from the stereo soundtrack in his head back into the general noise of the diner.

‘Yeah, you know, Mr Freeman. Marty Freeman. Big man, no hair, long leather coat, prone to losing his temper. The man you stole twelve thousand dollars from.’

‘I, er.’

‘Not the cleverest thing you’ve ever done, Kyle. But then you’re hardly the brightest firework in the box, are you? I’m here for the money.’

He glanced at the sports bag placed on the chair next to him, then to the door of the diner.

‘Don’t even think about it, Kyle. I’m not in the mood. As you can see, I’m meant to be at a cocktail party for the Governor.’

He glanced at her, then grabbed the bag.

The ball of her foot hit his pubic bone, the stiletto heal slid beneath his manhood, the arch forming a fortunate bridge.

‘You really are as dumb as you look, Kyle, you know that?’

He let out a low whimper, his eyes fixed on the ankle and shoe pinning him to the chair. He tried to wriggle backwards, but the wall stopped his progress.

She started to ease her foot upwards. ‘The bag please, Kyle.’

‘What?’ he muttered, his voice up an octave, his eyes not leaving the shoe.

‘I said, pass me the bag,’ she dug her heal in.

His eyes opened wide a fraction, before his face crumpled in a grimace. Reluctantly he passed the bag across the table. Once her foot was removed he’d grab the bag back and teach her a couple of lessons; she was crazy if she thought she could waltz in on her own in a slip of a cocktail dress and take what was rightfully his.

She unzipped the bag and eased it open. ‘Going on a little holiday, were we?’ she said, removing a wad of twenty dollar notes. ‘And your wallet.’


‘Yes, your wallet. Call it the interest due.’

‘Who are you?’

‘The hired help.’

‘The hired help?’

‘For Mr Freeman. Do you need revision notes?’ She smiled at him pityingly. ‘Your wallet.’

He dug into his back pocket and placed his fat wallet on the table. Where the hell was Jimmy? If he’d been here when he was meant to have been they’d have avoided this she-devil. And who was she, in any case? Mr Freeman had an established cadre of hired muscle.

She picked up the wallet and dropped it into the bag.

‘There, that wasn’t too bad was it?’

‘Do you really think you’re going to just walk out of here with my money?’

‘Mr Freeman’s money. And yes, I do.’ She jerked back her foot six inches and slammed it forward.

Kyle lurched back and folded in two in one movement, his body arcing across the table. For a moment his mouth was a silent O, before some unearthly sound roared from his lungs.

‘At least Jimmy took it like a man,’ the woman said rising, tugging the dress down her thighs. She picked up the bag and headed for the door. ‘He cheated on me,’ she explained to an elderly couple transfixed by Kyle’s howling.

Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree?’ she sang in unison with Annie as she pushed open the door and exited. She hoped that the governor wasn’t going to be too disappointed when she arrived half an hour late.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

April was a funny month

Most of this month has been a bit of a blur. A week trying to meet deadlines, a couple of weeks in Washington, a lot of sleep, a couple of days trying to catch up, and the last four days at two other conferences (one of which I am still at). I'm still behind on most things and have four books sitting on the shelf that I've read but await review. Hopefully May is going to be a quiet month. I got my hands on a copy of The White Gallows on Thursday, so it now feels a bit more real. The official release date is in June sometime.

My reviews this week:
Review of Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas
Unsold houses could bankrupt councils
Volcanic shadow
Negative equity nears 50 percent
Review of Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski
Requiems for the Departed