Thursday, April 29, 2010

Requiems for the Departed

Gerard Brennan has very kindly sent me an ARC pdf of Requiems for the Departed out in June (pre-order here). Rather than simply being a collection of short crime stories, each story is inspired by Irish mythology, and there is a stellar line-up of authors (contents below). I'll post a full review in due course, but wanted to give folk a heads-up at this stage. Based on the first few stories, it'll be well worth checking out.

Queen of the Hill - Stuart Neville
Hound of Culann - Tony Black
Hats off to Mary - Garry Kilworth
Sliabh Ban - Arlene Hunt
Red Hand of Ulster - Sam Millar
She Wails Through the Fair - Ken Bruen
A Price to Pay - Maxim Jakubowski
Red Milk - T. A. Moore
Bog Man - John McAllister
The Sea is Not Full - Una McCormack
The Druid's Dance - Tony Bailie
Children of Gear - Neville Thompson
Diarmid and Grainne - Adrian McKinty
The Fortunate Isles - Dave Hutchinson
First to Score - Garbhan Downey
Fisherman's Blues - Brian McGilloway
The Life Business - John Grant

Also check out Gerard's blog, Crime Scene NI. An entertaining read.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Review of Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski (Minotaur Books, 2010)

Mickey Wade has lost his job as a journalist and unable to afford his upscale apartment in central Philadelphia he reluctantly moves into his Grandfather’s apartment in down at heel, Frankford. The neighbourhood is where Wade grew up, the place he was desperate to escape from, especially after his musician father died. With his grandfather in hospital, he has the place to himself, and flat broke he adopts a slacker diet – apples (fibre), peanuts (protein) and beer (grains) - listens to his father’s albums on an old turntable, and munches on some old Tylenol tablets that have some very strange consequences – they transport him back in time to the same apartment in the early 1970s. An apartment occupied by Dr DeMeo, who specialises in researching out of body experiences for the military; an apartment located directly above that of a single mother and her twelve year old son who will grow up to murder Wade’s father.

I was a little dubious of the sci-fi meets pulp crime fiction cross-over, but Swierczynski carries if off with aplomb. The Wheelman was one of my best reads of 2009 and I was delighted to spot Expiration Date in a bookshop in Reagan Airport in DC. The first two pages were enough to convince me to add weight to my carry-on bag, and moreover make me consider seriously putting the book I was presently reading to one side. The start is a big, juicy worm baited on a razor sharp hook; one of the best openings I’ve read in quite a while. The story is meticulously plotted and surprisingly credible given the time travel element, and the pacing is high tempo without being rushed. The characterisation is strong and the dialogue snappy and realistic. Unusually, the story is accompanied by some illustrations by Laurence Campbell, who does work for Marvel Comics, and they nicely complement the narrative. The telling went a tiny bit flat in places (I suspect because it was originally written as 12 equal length instalments that were to be serialised in the New York Times before the section was unfortunately dropped), but in all honesty there’s very little to dislike – this is top quality stuff. It’s increasingly difficult for an author to find their own voice and to come up with relatively novel premise - Swierczynski scores on both counts and, even though I’ve only read two of his books, he’s quickly become a favourite author.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Volcanic shadow

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to a NBC 2 news item from last week. I was one of the stranded passengers interviewed by their roving reporter, but I'd assumed I hadn't made the cut. Needless to say I got back five days late instead of 9-12, but the sentiment was right! Being a bit dumb sometimes, someone else had to point out to me that the video bit played the segment! I also did an 'expert commentator' piece on TG4 (Irish language) news last night (the segment starts 9.25 secs in for anyone interested). Apparently they had to get special permission to talk to me due to my lack of language skills and had a limit of c. 3 seconds. I didn't really escape the media whilst away in DC, being contacted 5 times. I spent ten minutes talking on the phone to a Newstalk researcher from outside the White House about a news item I'd missed because I was on a plane, which was a little strange. Anyway, a little bit of my extended trip stored for posterity.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Review of Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas (Vintage, 2004)

Joss Le Geurn was the captain of a trawler before an accident led to a run in with the ship’s owner and banishment from Brittany’s fishing fleet. Several years later and he has taken up the family business as a town crier, working a square in Paris, reading out the messages left in his box three times a day. Over the course of a few days he receives a series of semi-cryptic messages, written in an old style, foretelling the coming of the Black Death. Then doors around the city start to be daubed with an ancient symbol that supposedly wards off the plague. In each apartment block a single door is left untouched. Detective Commissionaire Adamsberg is drawn to the case, sensing the work of a crank, but then the people who live behind the un-daubed doors start to perish, apparently showing plague-like symptoms. As the press start to speculate on whether the fatal disease has once again broken out in the city, Adamsberg seeks to track down a serial killer with a well-developed sense of history and purpose.

Have Mercy on Us All is a curious book. At one level it is a highly enjoyable read that rattles along at good pace, with colourful characterisation and an interesting plot. On another, the dialogue is weak (quite possibly a translation issue), some of the police procedural elements and plot are simply not credible, and Adamsberg, whilst an engaging character, is difficult to imagine as a cop in charge of a busy murder squad, whose antics border on Clouseau territory at times. For example, Paris is gripped by the threat of the plague, yet Adamsberg has loads of time to wander the streets pondering life, have an affair, and sit in a bar waiting for things to happen, seemingly without any pressure from his superiors, politicians or the public. One would imagine he would be flat out dealing with leads, directing his squad, and handling the media and other diversions. Overall, an enjoyable read that is particularly strong on characterisation and concept, as long as one doesn’t mind clunky dialogue and is able to suspend one’s belief in how the investigation is conducted (which I appreciate wouldn’t be a big issue for some readers).

Sunday, April 25, 2010

This weekend I have been mostly ... sleeping

Arrived home from my forced exile on Friday morning. Since then I've spent 35 of the first 51 hours sleeping, which has got to be some kind of personal record. The past couple of weeks already feels kind of dream-like and hazy, as if it never really happened. Hopefully all my colleagues are now back; they were due in this morning, nice and fresh for work tomorrow. In between coma-like sleeps, I've been catching up on domestic stuff and reading Joe Lansdale's, Leather Maiden. The man's one helluva writer. Brilliant stuff.

My posts this week:
A slow week on the posts due to various distractions. Should be back to normal service this week as I've reviews of Fred Vargas, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Duane Swierczynski and Joe Lansdale to post.

Homeward bound
Missing your own book launch
I'm making a real (h)ash of this volcano malarky

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Homeward bound

After a yo-yo morning yesterday on the airlines website and on the phone to an agent I've managed to get on a flight back to Dublin today. Finger's crossed. As I was talking to the agent a seat on the Atlanta-Dublin flight was cancelled. That seat was free for less than a second! That volcano better behave itself for the next 24 hours ... Plenty of time in aiports and planes for some reading. Just finished a Fred Vargas, have a Sjowall and Wahloo (Roseanna) and Joe Lansdale (Leather Maiden) in the carry-on bag. Hopefully the next post will be from the other side of the Atlantic.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Missing your own book launch

I've managed to doubly miss my own book launch. First, I didn't manage to travel to the London Book Fair taking place 19th-21st April. Second, I forgot that the book was officially published yesterday! I suspect that the book fair is a shadow of what it could have been given that a good chunk of exhibitors, authors, agents, etc will be absent. Still it would have been nice to attend, not least so I could have picked up a copy of The White Gallows. Perhaps next year once I've got the slow boat home.

I'm making a real (h)ash of this volcano malarky

I've just spent two hours trying to find another hotel in the DC area that is not mega-expensive and isn't 30 miles out from the city or miles from public transport. There's a very limited choice. I'm assuming that DC is super-busy with both conferences and people stranded after flight cancellations, as within the city limits there are no hotels for under 250 dollars a night and the majority are fully booked. When we booked into the hotel we're presently in, we weren't quite sure where it was or what it was like, other than it was next to a freeway. We booked two nights initially to see whether we wanted to stay the whole week. When we went to extend the stay all the rooms had been booked out. Now we'll spend a chunk of tomorrow transferring hotels to one a bit farther out, but nearer to a rail link. The earliest we can get a shuttle bus to the station in the morning is 10am. Late with the hotel booking; late with the shuttle reservation! I've also spoken to my travel insurance company who have told me the maximum they will pay is £230 delayed travel fee. On the bright side, thanks to Patti, I have now have an office in George Washington University and I'm giving a seminar there on Wednesday. The news on the volcano and travel is presently a little confused - some news sites say that airports are going to open tomorrow, others that the volcano has just spewed out another batch of ash. Prospects seem to flucuate hourly. I'm just hoping that it's okay on Thursday when the first of our party is due to fly back and fully operational at the weekend, when I'm now due to fly.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The long, dusty road home

The ash cloud over Europe has claimed another victim. My flight home has been cancelled and I have been rebooked onto a flight on the 25th April. So, whether I like it or not, I have another week in Washington, along with several hundred other people who were attending the same meeting. No doubt there are millions of others stranded in the wrong place all over the world. The lack of information to travellers is astonishing, not helped by the internet in the hotel being down for the last day or so. The next task is to find another hotel for tonight whilst I work out what I'm going to do for the week ...

My posts this week:
Review of Truth by Peter Temple
Review of Paying For It by Tony Black
NAMA might demolish, but what about the rest?
Noirish night
Review of Criminal Summer by Luigi Guicciardi
Review of A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review of A Firing Offense by George P. Pelecanos (Serpent’s Tail, 1992)

Nick Stefanos has worked his way up from the sales floor of a Nutty Nathan’s electrical discount store to the position of advertising director. It’s not a role that gives him any real kind of fulfilment and he’s still trying to cling onto the alternative music lifestyle of his twenties. When one of the stockboys he’s befriended, a young kid who reminds him of himself, disappears he reluctantly agrees to help the kid’s grandfather track him down. But it seems that the kid has fallen in with the wrong crowd and is now running for his life. Stefanos is undergoing his own coming of age story, partying like there’s no tomorrow, throwing off the shackles of the corporate life, and slowly mutating into an amateur private eye. Once on the trail of the kid, danger looms, and it quickly becomes a race to see who can track him down first.

The power of Pelecanos’ writing is that he immerses the reader in the protagonist’s world and he has a fine observational eye for how social relations play out. The characterisation, dialogue and scene writing is first class. In particular, Pelecanos perfectly captures the people and banter of the sales floor, the tricks used to tumble customers into sales, the micropolitics of workplaces in general, and the ambivalent and conflicted nature of family relations. The plotting of A Firing Offense, however, is a little uneven, drifting at times, and lacks some credibility in places, and Stefanos lapses towards just about every stereotype of a PI, though given a thoroughly modern twist. Overall, the quality of the writing and observations win out, and the novel is a hugely enjoyable read. There are two more novels in the Stefanos series and I hope to track them down shortly.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review of Inspector Cataldo’s Criminal Summer by Luigi Guicciardi (Hersilia Press, 2010/1999)

When a stranger turns up in a small town in the Apennines a ripple of disquiet spreads amongst a small group of childhood friends. A day later and one of the friends, Zoboli, an academic who researches old manuscripts is dead, seemingly commits suicide by blowing his brains out with a pistol. Inspector Cataldo is assigned to investigate the suspicious death. A thoughtful, insightful detective he soon discovers that the stranger and the death are connected through a death 18 years previously, and that each of the small group are reticent to disclose what they know about that night. A short while later a second man is dead and a photograph stolen. All Cataldo needs to do is piece together the puzzle to discover the killer with a dark secret to hide.

Criminal Summer has the feel of an old-style detective story, reminding me somewhat of a Poirot-style story. Cataldo is an unflappable, cerebral detective, who’s strong on observation and fitting together the pieces of a puzzle. Technically a police procedural, Cataldo works predominately alone and there is very little in terms of back story or internal police politics. And although there is some tension underpinning the narrative, it is understated; the story told in a very sedate fashion, with little hint of violence or conflict. Consequently, the story kind of drifts along at a leisurely pace. That said, the characterisation, plot and sense of place all sufficient to make the book a pleasant experience. However, personally I would have preferred a bit more of a sense of urgency, more realism in the police investigation, and a lot more back story to make the book a truly satisfying read.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Noirish night

I spent a very pleasant evening with Glenn from International Noir yesterday evening. We hooked up at Kramer's bookstore off Dupont Circle in Washington DC. Had a good browse of the books and chatted about different authors and books and other stuff. I did quite well in that I only came away with 6 books. Afterwards I headed to a big book-barn place by myself. It was a strangely lifeless, soulless space. It had 7 bookcases of SF, 9 cases of romance and 3 of what it called mystery, 90% of which were cozies. I couldn't get my head into alignment with its stocking policy and left after five minutes (and I'm usually a minimum of a good half an hour browsing kind of a person). Also spent a couple of interesting hours in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum; well worth a visit if your visiting DC.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review of Paying For It by Tony Black (Preface, 2008)

Gus Dury used to be an up-and-coming journalist until he managed to break the nose of a Scottish Parliament cabinet minister with an unintentional headbutt. Having lost his job and also his wife, he drifts from one Edinburgh pub to another drowning his sorrows in endless pints followed by whisky chasers, living off the good will of his remaining friends. Then the son of one of those friends is found tortured to death, but the police seemingly have little appetite for finding his killer. Reluctantly, Gus agrees to use his old investigative skills to discover the reason for Billy’s brutal slaying and the killer’s identity. Descending into the Edinburgh underworld, he soon discovers that Billy had been running with a ruthless East European gang who were importing young girls, and that the gang leader, Benny Zalinskas, has powerful friends in high places. Uncovering Billy’s killer will be no easy task, especially when the next drink is always beckoning.

Paying For It is written from a first person perspective, the reader viewing the world through Gus Dury. And it’s the view from one step away from the gutter. Dury knows how to drink himself to oblivion, how to push those people that still care away, how to provoke dangerous people into a fight and then take the punishment. And yet he still retains some humanity and dignity, some semblance of journalistic righteousness and justice. For the most part I enjoyed the novel. Dury is plausible, the characterisation well realised, the dialogue believable. The prose is workmanlike, and the pacing good. At times though the story lacks credibility – Dury drinks so much, and takes beatings that would leave him so incapacitated that he’d hardly be able to function. And yet he soldiers on, with folk for the most part ignoring the battered and bruised state he's in. After a particularly savage beating in which he loses his teeth, his mother’s comment is that he looks like he needs a good feed! And there are a couple of continuity issues, such as Nadja losing her East European accent after the first couple of scenes, and a couple of puzzling questions concerning the resolution. Despite those issues, Paying For It passed a few pleasant hours and the teaser instalment of Dury’s next outing, Gutted, did its job.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Review of Truth by Peter Temple (2009, Quercus)

A young girl is found dead in a glass bath in an empty apartment, thirty storeys up in a brand new, exclusive property development. The building’s management company claim there’s no security footage, despite boasting that it’s the most secure complex in the city, using the latest Israeli systems. Inspector Stephen Villani, head of the Victoria Police Homicide Squad, knows he’s been given the brush-off, and he’s determined to get to the truth. Only the truth is an intangible and slippery concept, especially when everyone Villani encounters is on the make in one way or another or has a dark secret to hide, including his colleagues and himself. Then more bodies start to turn up and Villani finds himself swimming in very murky waters infested with powerful politicians, influential businessmen, and senior police officers bent on using him for their own gain, all offering rewards for looking the other way. And to top it off, his wife is away, his youngest daughter is roaming the streets in a drug-addled state, his brother is mixed up with a biker gang, and his father is refusing to leave his landholding despite a huge forest fire heading his way. Unsure who to trust, doubting himself, and trying to keep his own secrets hidden, Villani seeks justice, if not the truth.

It took me a little while to get hooked into Truth. The story had a change in style from Temple’s previous novels somewhat similar to the transformation in James Ellroy’s work – the prose becoming starker, terser and sparser, yet still retaining its lyrical prose. For much of the first half of the book, the story is a succession of fragments, the reader dropped into scenes that lack backstory and context; it’s a bit like hearing a sequence of partial conversations between guarded protagonists and trying to piece them together into a full narrative to try and understand what is going on. The result is that the reader is not really sure what is happening or why. Slowly things start to take shape and the multi-layered plot twists to a resolution. While the characterisation is good, and the dialogue realistic, the strength of the novel is that it provides plenty of food for thought with respect to its central premise – that nobody can be trusted, even family and friends; that everybody is on the make in some fashion; and every action has to be evaluated for possible consequences and costs. To that end, Truth, for me at least, is a novel that has more weight and substance a few days after reading, as its deeper meanings surface on reflection. Overall, an enjoyable novel that lingers after reading, but not quite in the same league as Temple’s Jack Irish novels, which are first class.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Lazy Sunday Service

Heading to Washington DC tomorrow and still getting myself ready and tinkering with my paper. I'm arguing for a new epistemology to underpin cartographic research; should be interesting to see what the traditionalists make of it. What I'm really looking forward to doing, however, is raiding Kramerbooks at Dupont Circle (as recommended to me by InternationalNoir).

My posts this week:
House price floor established

Washington DC recommendations
Unfinished estates
DSD flash fiction challenge: Cutting Loose
Review of Old Dogs by Donna Moore
Do you and your blog reveal symptons of scopophilia?
Review of Motor City Blue by Loren Estleman
How cops become bent

Saturday, April 10, 2010

How cops become bent …

A Saturday Snippet from Peter Temple's, Truth. A just about perfect, succinct explanation for how and why cops become bent. Great stuff.

Bent forever, the job. Why not? Terrible pay, the hours, the conditions, the risks. It only took a few days for him to work out who he had signed up with: the dim, the school bullies, body-builders, martial-arts fanatics, control freaks, thrillseekers, loners, kids from cop families, kids bought up by mum.

In uniform, a full understanding of the job slowly dawned. A life spent dealing with the dishonest, the negligent, the deviant, the devious, the desperate, the cruel, the callous, the vicious, the drunk, the drugged, the temporarily deranged and permanently insane, the sick and sad, the sadists, sex maniacs, child molesters, flashers, exhibitionists, women-beaters, wife-beaters, child-beaters, self-mulitators, the homicidal, matricidal, patricidal, fraticidal, suicidal.

Some of them dead.

You could quickly slide into otherness, estrangement from the civilian world, a sense of entitlement. What did it matter if you didn’t pay full price for your clothes, your drycleaning, got free coffee, a sandwich, if people bought you drinks in pubs? You could take lotto tickets, not pay at places. People gave you horse tips, invites to clubs, you could go after your shift with a mate, everything on the house, the best girls.

Just give your name. Expecting you, the bloke.

They gave every sign you were the sexiest thing that year, you had experiences not normally had on a date or with the wife. When you were pissed, someone gave you something. And then one day you got the call.

Shit, mate, bastard pulls me over on the Tulla, goin a bit over, yeah. Not the fine, mate, the fucken points, gonna have to get the fucken push-bike out, have a word, can you? Appreciate it, mate.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Review of Motor City Blue by Loren D. Estleman (Ballantine, 1980)

Amos Walker is a PI in Detroit. Whilst staking out an insurance scam artist he witnesses, Kramer, his company commander from Vietnam being bundled into the back of a car by two apes. He reports the abduction to an old acquaintance in the police, but soon afterwards Kramer is found shot dead and left in the trunk of a car at the airport. Later that day Walker is contacted by Ben Morningstar, the local mafia boss, who wants him to find his ward, Marla Bernstein, a teenager who’s skipped finishing school. The only clue to her whereabouts is pornographic photo. After scrabbling round the underbelly of Detroit and tangling with pornographers, pimps and whores, gangsters, white fundamentalists, and military intelligence agents, Walker realises that Kramer’s death and Bernstein’s disappearance are connected, all he needs to do now is find the girl and bring Kramer’s killers to justice.

Motor City Blue has an interesting, twisting plot, and Estleman can string some nice prose together. This should have been a book that I enjoyed a lot. And to some extent I did. My problems with it were two-fold. First, all the characters were highly stereotypical - Walker is cut from the same cloth as almost every PI committed to paper post Hammett and Chandler (see my post here; there is absolutely nothing original or unique about him or his life); Bernstein is the brattish, spoilt child; Morningstar is the laconic, benevolent gangster; Iris is the whore with a heart of gold; the homicide officer is cranky and overworked; military intelligence are straight-backed dolts; etc. Second, the story is bought to a close through a series of long monologues that are used to explain how Walker solved the mystery. The guy barely strings two sentences together for most of the story and suddenly we get pages of monologue revealing, Poirot style, how we as the reader should have been able to piece the puzzle together (except for the fact that we didn’t have all the clues until the explanation). Overall, Motor City Blue will appeal to any fan of hardboiled PI, where the PI is carbon copy of Philip Marlowe. Personally, I enjoyed it for the prose and plot, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it could have been with some original characterisation and style.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Do you and your blog reveal symptoms of scopophilia?

I’ve been reading about Web 2.0 and some of the academic explanations concerning its development and popularity. A couple of explanations use the concepts of sousveillance and scopophilia. Sousveillance is the self-generation of surveillance, wherein an individual generates data about themselves for their own and others use. Blogging constitutes one form of sousveillance, where a person records and shares snippets about their life: their views, thoughts, opinions, actions, details about their family, their history, etc. The need to share and discuss these in an open forum is driven, in part, by scopophilic tendencies, where scopophilia is the pleasure in looking and in being looked at.

Which brings me to my questions – how much of the motivation for blogging is driven by the pleasure of looking and being looked? How much pleasure do you derive from people reading and commenting on your blog? Do you suffer from scopophilia?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Review of Old Dogs by Donna Moore (Busted Flush Press, 2010)

Old Dogs was officially published yesterday. I’ve had an advance copy, won in a competition, for a little while and pushed it to the top of the TBR pile to coincide with its release. Having thoroughly enjoyed Go to Helena Handbasket, Donna Moore’s last novel, I was looking forward to another comic crime caper. And that’s what’s delivered – a comic heist story that, to me, was rooted in the best traditions of British, 1980s alternative comedy (which is shorthand for quite a few bums, tits, poo, etc jokes and anarchic scenes) (see my post here).

I was going to write a synopsis, but for once the blurb on the back of the book does a good job: ‘La Contessa Letitzia di Ponzo and her sister Signora Teodora Grisiola are not who they might seem. Now in their seventies, they’re actually Letty and Dora, a pair of ex-hookers turned con-artists who’ve decided to steal a pair of gold, jewel-encrusted Tibetan shih tzu dog statuettes from a Glasgow museum. Unfortunately, it seems everyone wants to get their hands on the expensive pooches. There’s the dodgy chauffeur, a pair of delinquents who work in a crematorium, an out-of-work insomniac bent on revenge, and an innocent young islander who’s obsessed with returning the dogs to Tibet. And yet the elderly con-artists might just manage to execute their plan and live the rest of their lives in the lap of luxury. That’s if they can avoid the Australian hitman with his sights on a very different future for them. . .’

I enjoyed Old Dogs and laughed out loud several times. There’s a nice blend of characters, some very well judged observations and scenes, a good intertwining of subplots, a cantering pace, and a comic moment on every page. That said, the story is a little uneven in places and, I’m not sure whether this was due to having an uncorrected proof, there seemed to be a couple of continuity lapses. These though are minor issues as overall it’s an entertaining read and provided a welcome Scottish diversion from the misery that is the Irish recession. As well as writing novels, Donna Moore also runs the blog, Big Beat from Badsville, where she posts about Scottish crime fiction and some of the craziness in her life. Well worth subscribing to.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

DSD flash fiction challenge: Cutting Loose

About a month ago, Jay over at Do Some Damage issued a flash fiction challenge - write a short, recession based, crime story. Here's my contribution.

Cutting Loose

‘My name is Aoife and I’m a …’ She paused. What the hell was she doing here? Twelve months previously she’d had a good job in a bank working in the commercial property section. She’d been pulling in over one hundred thousand euro a year, plus the same again in bonuses. She’d bought a nice, three bedroom mews house in the city at the height of the property boom, drove a bright red BMW 3 series, wore designer clothes, ate in the best restaurants, and took three or four foreign holidays a year.

Then boom! She’d been laid off as the bank imploded. Suddenly she was finding it difficult to pay the mortgage on a house that was worth a third less than she paid for it, the garage was threatening to repossess the car, her credit cards were maxed out, her savings gone, and the chances of another well paid job pretty much zero. Thirty two and she was already on the scrapheap.

‘Aoife?’ the group facilitator, prompted.

‘Sorry.’ She pulled a tight smile of apology. ‘My name is Aoife and I’m a kleptomaniac.’ There, she’d said it. It didn’t feel like a release, a step towards reform; more like a grubby confession to strangers – part of her penance for being caught shoplifting on three separate occasions; along with one hundred and twenty hours of community service.

It hadn’t been something she’d set out to do; she’d just kind of drifted into the petty theft. She’d gotten away with it for a while, before being caught in a supermarket only scanning the cheap items at a self-service checkout. The second time it had been a wool coat from an upmarket department store. The third time … she didn’t want to think about the third time, it was too stupid for words.

* * *

She stepped out onto the street and waited at the kerb for a gap in the traffic.

‘Well, that was a waste of feckin’ time,’ said a voice behind her.

She glanced back. A young woman in a black bomber jacket, a short denim skirt over black leggings and red pumps was standing in the doorway, staring up at clouds that threatened rain.

‘Do you fancy getting something to eat? I’m starving after that nonsense.’

‘I can’t afford to eat out,’ she replied warily.

‘Who said anything about paying?’

‘And I can’t afford to get caught again either. The judge said next time would be a prison sentence.’

‘That’s bollocks. There’s no way they’re going to send you down for a misdemeanour. Jesus, our Gary’s been in trouble with the law more times than you’ve had hot dinners and they’ve never put him away. He’s just trying to scare you, that’s all. There’s a Chinese down here.’ She nodded with her head.

‘I’m fine. Thanks for the offer.’

* * *

The woman’s name was Carol. She’d had a dozen jobs in a half a dozen years, all of them paying just above the minimum wage. Her specialty was lifting goods and finding people stupid enough to buy stuff for her.

Carol’s solution to Aoife’s financial woes was simple – post the keys back to the mortgage company, cut free of her life in Ireland, and get the plane to London and start again; as if re-invention was a case of turning on and off a switch. As if life could be that simple.

They’d started with a gin and tonic each and had then worked their way through a bottle of white wine, spring rolls, chicken satay with fried rice, and beef chow mein.

‘Look, will you stop worrying,’ Carol said smiling. ‘I’ve done this loads of times. Do I look like I’m worried?’


‘Well then. This is the way it works. You go outside for a cigarette. I …’

‘I don’t smoke.’

‘You can borrow one of mine and pretend. After a minute or so, I’ll ask the waiter where the toilets are. Then when he heads back into the kitchen, I come out and join you and we slip away. He won’t realise at first what has happened, because he thinks you’re having a cigarette and I’m in the loo.’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Jesus, Aoife, will you lighten up. Have you got any money?’

‘Not enough for the meal.’

‘Well then, we haven’t got a choice have we?’

‘What am I doing?’ Aoife mumbled to herself.

‘It’s not going to bankrupt them, is it?’ Carol pulled a pack of cigarettes from her handbag and passed one over. ‘Look, I’m the one staying behind taking the risk. Just head outside and hang around, I’ll be out in a minute.’

Aoife left the restaurant and waited on the pavement, glancing nervously at her watch, thrilled and appalled in equal measure, aware that she was now quite drunk.

Three minutes later, Carol appeared. She linked arms with Aoife and walked quickly to the left, breaking into a trot once out of view of the window. At the first intersection they turned left and quickened their pace, crossing to the far side of the road and taking the next right. Two hundred yards later they slowed to a walk.

‘There, I told you it would be fine!’ Carol said, laughing. ‘Let’s go and find some poor saps to buy us a drink.’

* * *

They were sitting a table in a trendy bar nursing two white wines that Aoife had paid for with her bus money. For the past twenty minutes a very tipsy Carol had been regaling her with past adventures, whilst she simultaneously scanned the crowd for likely marks.

‘Here they come’

‘Who?’ Aoife asked, glancing up anxiously. Two men in cheap suits and loosened ties were heading for them, the shorter, dark haired one leading the way, the gangly red head, with pug ears and a broken nose, trailing behind.

‘The two honchos that have been eyeing us up for the past ten minutes.’

‘Howya, ladies, we were just …’

‘Don’t bother unless you’ve got cocks like marrows,’ Carol interrupted, holding a straight face.

‘What?’ the shorter one said flummoxed.

‘I’m hung like Red Rum; he’s more like My Little Pony, but it’ll still be the biggest thing you’ve ever seen,’ the red head quipped back smiling.

‘As long as you both know what a clit is.’

‘Carol!’ Aoife squealed, shocked at the course banter.

‘She’s drinking gin and tonic; I’m on vodka and Coke.’

* * *

She woke slowly, her head fuzzy, her mouth cottony, aware of a warm body snaking down her back, a heavy arm draped over her waist, resting just under her left breast.

Her first coherent thought was, ‘Oh sweet, Jesus,’ followed by mild panic. She slipped out from under the arm, perching on the edge of the bed. Her nightdress had slipped from under the pillow and was lying on the floor. She reached down and slipped it on, glancing back. A red headed man had the quilt pulled tight to his chin.

Fragments of the night before crept into consciousness. She shook her head, angry at herself, and headed for the door, the nightdress barely reaching mid-thigh, suddenly aware the sticky mess between her legs. She turned back, scanning the room for the signs of a condom, panic rising again. Sometimes she really could do the stupidest things.

Having visited the bathroom, she crept downstairs and into the kitchen intent on making coffee. The house was eerily quiet, the smell of stale cigarettes hanging in the air. There was a note on the table. She picked it up and read it twice.

‘Don’t worry about the car. You can collect the insurance money.’

She bolted into the living room to stare out of the front window. The driveway was empty. Carol had taken her BMW 3 series.

She’d been the mark all along.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ she spat angrily. ‘The little bitch.’

A minute later and she was still at the window, gazing out with unfocused eyes trying to piece together the previous evening, her temper having dissipated as quickly as it had risen.

‘Where’s my wallet?’ asked a sullen voice from the doorway.

She turned to face him. He was naked, looking like a shaven Orang-utan, his chest and long arms and legs covered in a light, red down. His right hand clutched his trousers.

‘Probably the same place as my car,’ she said wistfully.


‘My car’s been taken as well.’

‘Your car?’

‘Yes, Carol and your friend have taken it. If that’s her real name.’

‘Her real name?’ he repeated, seemingly unable to get his brain into gear.

‘I’m going to need to find a pharmacy this morning,’ she said, moving the conversation on, ‘unless you’ve been firing blanks?’


‘I need to get the morning after pill.’

‘Fuck,’ he muttered, something finally sinking in.

‘Yes, that’ll usually do it.’ For some strange reason she felt liberated; she didn’t care about the car, didn’t care about the house or her debts or her reputation. She didn’t care that she knew nothing about the naked ape or his sexual health. She didn’t care about the previous the night. For now it could all go to hell. Maybe cutting loose and abandoning ship for a new start somewhere else wasn’t such a bad idea.

She brushed past him heading into the hallway. At the bottom of the stairs she lifted the nightdress up and over her head, balled it and threw it at him. ‘I’m going to take a shower. Do ya wanna to join me?’

The ape caught the nightdress, looked at it, looked at her, dropped the garment and trooped off after her, his wallet temporarily forgotten.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Washington DC recommendations?

This time next week I'll be sitting on a plane winging my way to Washington DC for a week at a conference. I have a short list of fiction I intend to pick up whilst I'm there that I can't purchase here yet, but what I'm after right now are some recommendations for some DC crime fiction. I have 'A Firing Offense' by George P Pelecanos for the plane, but what other books should I keep an eye out for? All suggestions gratefully received.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

For the first time in a few weeks I actually found time to write some fiction yesterday. I spent a couple of enjoyable hours drafting a short story for Patti's 'Sweet Dreams' challenge. It felt good to get away from all the academic stuff and write something more fun for a change. I'll post up my offering in due course.

My posts this week:
Well if you could see the stars, then ...
Review of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
Please pass my some aspirin
Review of The Grave in Gaza by Matt Beynon Rees
Unfettered and irresponsible rezonings
The Comic Strip Presents ... Old Dogs?
March reviews

Saturday, April 3, 2010

March Reviews

The third month in a row in which I read just seven books. I can see a pattern emerging here! Undoubtedly the highlight of the month was The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain, a classic tale of fatal attraction. There's a lot of four star reviews here, but it didn't feel like a four star month, mainly, I think, because of what was going on otherwise.

The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza ****
The Good Thief's Guide to Paris by Chris Ewan ****
Devil's Food by Anthony Bruno ****
Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre ****
The Complaints by Ian Rankin ****
Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie **
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain *****

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Comic Strip Presents ... Old Dogs?

I'm presently reading Old Dogs by Donna Moore, a comic heist story, with an ensemble cast of tarts, crooks, assassins, neds, and the occassional innocent and naive soul, all after a pair of golden shih tzu statuettes on exhibition in a Glasgow museum.

One gets the distinct impression from reading Old Dogs, that one wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of Ms Moore. She has an acerbic line of put-downs (e.g., 'He's a dodgy, rat-faced, little wanker who wouldn't know the word 'honesty' if it gave him a lap dance and bit him on the arse'), and a vengeful sense of justice that involves a bucket of dog shit, a bag of prawns, and a pair of scissors. I'm particularly fond of Dunk and Raymie, a pair of layabout neds, who spend a good chunk of the book squeezed together in a toilet cubicle, only one them keeps needing to use the toilet.

'I need a Barry White.'
'No fucking way Raymie. You'll need to hold it in.'
'I cannae, Dunk. I'm touching cloth.'

'Fuck's sake Raymie, your arse is boufin' ya manky bastit. That's no' a shite, that's a weapon of mass destruction.'
'Shall I flush it?'
'Flush it? That keech isn't going to go down the stank. They're going to find it floating here tomorrow and put it in the museum as an exhibit.'

It's One Night at the Museum, 'Comic Strip Presents ...' style. Perfect for a soul raised on 1980s, British alternative comedy.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Review of The Grave in Gaza by Matt Beynon Rees (Mariner Books, 2008)

Omar Yussef, a school principal in Bethlehem, is visiting Gaza with his college from the UN, Magnus Wallander, to inspect the schools in the refugee camps. On arrival they are welcomed by James Cree, a Scot working for the UN, who has just been informed that one of the local, part-time teachers has been arrested. Masharawi is also employed in the Islamic University, where he has denounced the practice of selling degrees to members of the security services seeking quick promotion. On the way to Masharawi’s home they pass the funeral of a security agent killed by a criminal gang linked to a rival military faction; an agent that seemingly bought one of the university’s degrees. Unwittingly, Omar Yussef, Wallander and Cree, are drawn into the political corruption and black marketeering of rival politicians, their private armies, and associated criminal gangs. Soon Wallander is kidnapped, Cree is dead, and Omar Yussef is left in a world alien to him, trying to free his friend, Masharawi, and the innocent man accused of killing the security agent. If it wasn’t for the presence of Khamis Zeyden, Bethlehem’s chief of police, and member of the Revolutionary Counci,l and his bodyguard, Sami, Omar Yussef would be completely at sea. The sensible thing to do would be to leave Gaza, especially when a contract is taken out on his life, and let the UN negotiate the Wallander’s freedom, but Omar Yussef is driven by a strong sense of responsibility, and using his detective skills he starts to piece together connections and patterns that others fail to see.

Like the first book in Beynon Rees series, The Collaborator of Bethlehem (one of my top ten reads of 2009), The Grave in Gaza is fascinating and entertaining read. Beynon Rees seemingly captures perfectly the geography, history, politics and culture of modern day Gaza; the factions, fears, uncertainties, sights and sounds, and the cruelty and humanity. In Omar Yussef he has created a wonderful character – wise, humane, comic, dogged. The story is a well plotted and paced, multi-textual, credible, and remarkably non-judgemental, simply telling the story as it unfolds and leaving the judgements to the reader. The narrative becomes a little ragged towards the end, and as with many crime novels the resolution rests on a coincidence that seemed unlikely, but nonetheless this was a hugely enjoyable read. The Samaritan’s Secret, the third Omar Yussef book is now on my wish list.