Monday, November 29, 2010

Review of The Samaritan’s Secret by Matt Beynon Rees (2008, Soho Books)

Omar Yussef, a history teacher, has travelled with his family to Nablus in the West Bank to attend the wedding of Sami Jaffari, a local policeman. Jaffari has been asked to investigate the theft of a valuable scroll from the synagogue of the ancient Samaritan sect, and takes Omar Yussef along to visit the important religious site. Whilst meeting the head priest, the body of a young Samaritan is discovered murdered after apparently being tortured. His interest piqued, Omar Yussef sets out to discover the murderer, soon finding himself in a complex web of politics and the rivalry between two Muslim groups – Hamas and Fatah – and a race to discover the location of 300 million US dollars of aid from the World Bank.

The first two books in the Omar Yussef series are great reads, especially The Collaborator of Bethlehem. The stories are well told, multi-layered, had a good balance of back story, history and political context, and evoked a strong sense of place. The Samaritan’s Secret, however, seemed quite direct and a little flat in comparison. The narrative jumps right into the story and then runs at a steady pace. The plot idea is strong, but the telling lacks some of the craft of the first two books. I also felt the story suffered from a couple of credibility issues. The story works on Omar Yussef being embedded in certain networks (which is fine), but too many times I kept asking myself why all the various actors, from all sides, were prepared to confide in him. Yes, he’s a genial character, but he’s also a stranger to many characters and conspiracies work on secrets. I therefore found it difficult to believe that he could so quickly and effectively work his way to the centre of the action. That all said, the concept is good and it’s an entertaining read. I think part of the issue is that the first two books are so good that Rees has set himself a very high bar to reach in subsequent outings. This is always going to be a challenge. In Omar Yussef, Rees has created a great character and I’m looking forward to the fourth outing.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

A freezing weekend in Ireland. The deal to bail the country out is to be announced in the next hour. It'll take generations to pay it off. By 2014, somewhere between 20 to 25% of tax collected will be used to pay back the loan and its interest. Ireland will be in every economics textbook about how to build an economic miracle, then slam it into the ground with enough velocity that it'll take years to get out of the resultant hole, and then rather than trying to climb out to keep digging. The powerlessness to do anything but watch slack-jawed is incredibly frustrating.

I've spent the last three days doing the index to the Code/Space book for MIT Press. It is incredibly tedious and I'm still going. I hope someone actually uses the thing for all the effort it's taking!

My posts this week:
Short story: Undergrowth
Kindle version of The White Gallows
IMF report on structural reform in Euro area, including Ireland
Review of Vanilla Ride by Joe Lansdale
Signing on the line
Giving apartments away has social and economic consequences

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Signing on the line

Yesterday I signed a contract with a US literary agency and put it in the post. Once I've got the counter-signed copy back I'll say a bit more (not that I'm paranoid or anything). I'm really pleased with this, and hopefully it will lead to good things. The agency has a great stable of writers, and if nothing else, if it enables me to meet and chat with them that would be great. The journey to the contract offer was started by a short story submitted to a flash fiction challenge organised by Jason Dukes and hosted by Paul Brazill - thanks guys. Who would have thought that Harry and Pete's first outing would deliver this opportunity? We'll see where it leads ...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review of Vanilla Ride by Joe Lansdale (2009, Vintage Crime)

One of Hap Collins and Leonard Pine’s old friends needs a favour – his granddaughter has fallen in with a gang of drug dealers and her boyfriend beats her. He’d snatch her back and put her in rehab himself except for his health and the fact that he’d be taking on a gang of much younger and fitter men. Hap and Leonard might be getting on themselves, but they’re still reasonably fit and they have the confidence of surviving for years through their wits and violence. Grabbing the girl is eventful, but works out fine. Unfortunately, by flushing a valuable the drugs down the toilet, they annoy those above the bottom feeders – the Dixie Mafia. To assert their authority they need to make an example of Hap and Leonard, only they’ve badly under-estimated the task. After a bloody street battle, Hap and Leonard find themselves in jail facing charges, but there’s an offer on the table – to track down the wayward son of a Dixie member. They agree to the job, but it’s soon clear that they are not the only ones seeking the son, the Dixie Mafia still want them dead, and the legendary assassin, Vanilla Ride, is on their trail.

If Lansdale could churn out a daily dose of Hap and Leonard stories, I could quite happily read nothing but them and be satisfied. In my view, Hap and Leonard are the best double act in crime fiction today, and Lansdale the best proponent of comic crime. I loved Vanilla Ride from the first page to the last - my jaw ached from grinning so much. The writing is excellent – expressive, taut, quick paced, funny – and the dialogue is first class. The characterisation is a little caricaturish at times, but that goes with the territory with these kinds of novels. The plot is well constructed and it would easily translate to the big screen. I’ve nothing bad to say about it. If you have a rough and ready sense of humour then read this book – you won’t regret it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kindle version of The White Gallows

The White Gallows has just been published as a kindle version on and The Rule Book will follow shortly - I've taken the opportunity to correct some typos in the print edition.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Short story: Undergrowth

A couple of weeks ago I had a flash piece on A Twist of Noir. Yesterday I decided to extend the piece out into a longer story to make it the same length as the other Harry and Pete stories. It may be a little rough and ready, but the result is below. There are some pretty bad jokes all the way through, but hopefully they'll raise a smile. For once, I think the final punchline is a doozy (if you like your jokes in poor taste). No doubt there are typos. I'll try and pick them up at some point.


‘For fuck’s sake,’ Pete muttered, ‘how come we always get the crappy jobs?’

The rain was drifting in on a cold, east wind; a fine mist that managed to work its way through outer layers. They’d already scoured the laneway for a knife or bloodied clothes, poking away at the foliage with stakes. Now they were wading through sodden ferns under the canopy of a small copse, their clothes snagging on tangles of brambles, hands stung by nettles.

‘You’d sooner be pushing paper, yeah?’ Harry replied.

‘We’ve got the fucker, so why can’t we wait until it stops fecking raining?’

‘Because Johnny Cronin knows this is the only way a skanky fucker like you gets a shower. We’re just here to make sure you wash the shampoo off properly.’

‘Says the man who only has three pairs of underpants and does a wash just once a week’, scoffed Pete. ‘I say we call it quits. All we’re going to catch is pneumonia. We’re just wasting our time.’

‘Will you two stop bloody moaning,’ Chloe Gaines snapped. She’d no idea what crime she’d committed to be punished by a morning with Harry and Pete, two dinosaurs from another era - unreconstructed, misogynist cops on the slow road to retirement. ‘Jesus, it’s only a bit of rain.’

‘I don’t see you stripping off yer’ wet gear,’ Harry replied, ‘dancing around to some rain god.’

‘Rubbing the shampoo in,’ Pete added.

Several years their junior, Chloe Gaines was the best looking cop in their station by a country mile and neither man would object if she felt the need to strip down to her birthday suit to dance in the rain.

‘For god’s sake - how old are you, five?’ Chloe asked, rolling her eyes.

‘What the ...’ Harry trailed off, picking at the ground with his staff, revealing a withered condom. ‘Ah, Jesus, you could have cleaned up after yourself, Pete.’


‘Well, it looks like your size.’

‘If that was mine you could tie five knots in it and it would still be bigger than that.’

Chloe snorted in derision. She pressed on ahead, wondering how either man had managed to find a wife.

Harry shared a look with Pete and nodded conspiratorially towards Gaines. ‘Here’s one for you. How’s a woman like a condom?’

Pete shrugged and ducked under a low branch.

‘Both spend more time in your wallet than on your prick.’

Chloe swivelled round, her face flushed red. ‘I’ve warned you before. Any more jokes like that and I’ll be reporting you for sexual harassment.’

‘Relax will you, Chloe. It’s just a joke. Jesus.’

‘It’s not just a joke.’

‘What do you do with 365 used condoms?’ Harry continued, as if to make a point. ‘Melt them down, make a tyre, and call it a Goodyear.’

As he uttered the punch line, his footing shot out from under him and he slid down a bank which had been hidden from view by the undergrowth, plunging into freezing black water.

Harry let out a roar. ‘Fuck! Jesus wept!’

Chloe and Pete hurried back and stared down the slope at him, neck deep in water.

‘Relax, you big girl,’ Pete said. ‘I’ll pass you the shampoo.’

‘Fuck you! I’ve found that fuckin’ knife.’ Harry’s hand emerged from the filthy water clutching the blade, blood seeping out between his fingers.

‘Don’t bleed on it!’ Chloe said. ‘You’re contaminating the evidence.’

‘Are you’re taking the piss? I’ve just managed to stab myself.’

‘Yeah, on a murder weapon! For Christ’s sake, Harry.’

‘I’ve just scared the shit out of myself sliding down here; I stab myself, and all you’re worried about is the poxy knife.’

‘It sounds like you better wash you underpants whilst you’re down there,’ Pete added.

‘And fuck you too!’ Harry spluttered, shivering in the freezing pool. Get down here and help me out.’

Chloe kicked the condom, it plopping into water next to him. ‘Here, grab hold of that life raft.’

* * *

Harry’s teeth were chattering like a child’s machine gun, his body shaking with shivers. They were huddled on the side of the lane in the lee of a large oak tree, seeking shelter from the rain, having decided to wait there for the ambulance rather than trudge the half mile back to their vehicle.

‘You need to get out of those wet clothes,’ Chloe said.

‘And ... get into ... what?’ Harry’s hand was throbbing with pain, blood leaking out from under the wad of paper handkerchiefs Gaines had given him to try and stench the flow.

‘Give him your coat, Pete.’


‘Give him your coat, you big pansy; he’s going to catch hypothermia. Come-on, let’s get this stuff off.’ She started to tug at the zip to Harry’s coat.

‘Jesus ... you’ve turned ... a bit keen. We gonna ... share a ... sleeping bag ... to keep ... keep warm?’

‘In your feckin’ dreams, Harry. All the whale fat on you, you’d think you could cope with a bit of bloody cold water.’

‘Where’s the feckin’ ambulance?’ Pete muttered, not wanting to give up the warm cocoon of his coat.

‘Whale fat? ... That’s ... that’s muscle.’

‘It’s beer and burgers.’ Chloe had got the coat unzipped. ‘Right, come-on, you big girl, slip out of it.’

Harry let go of the handkerchiefs with his good hand, closing his bloody fingers around them, and allowed his shaking body to be eased out of the jacket.

‘What’s ... black and white ... and red all over?’

‘Now the jumper,’ Chloe said, ignoring him. ‘Put your arms up and lean forward.’

Harry did as he was told, muttering the answer. ‘A killer ... whale ... eating the ... sarcastic bitch ... taunting him.’

Chloe grabbed the jumper at its base and tugged the material up his body and part way along his arms until the neck opening jammed on Harry’s head, stopping progress. She tried tugging it, but succeeded in only dragging him forward.

‘For fuck’s sake. Give me a hand, Pete.’

‘What do you want me to do?’

‘What do you think! Get the neck over his head. I’ll keep pulling.’

Pete struggled with the jumper, easing it over the jut of Harry’s chin, trying to push back against him as Chloe pulled.

‘Stop! Jesus, fuck. ... Are you ... are you ... trying to ... rip my fa... face off?’ His arms were locked in place above him, the neck of the jumper tight at the base of his ears and caught under his nose.

‘What’s wrong?’ Chloe asked. ‘How do you normally take it off?’

‘It’s ... it’s shrunk.’

‘Stop being such a cry baby.’ She tugged viciously without warning, pitching Harry forward and knocking Pete to the ground where he landed in a pothole full of water.

‘For fuck’s sake!’ Pete snapped. ‘What did you do that for, you silly bitch!’

‘Stop whinging and help me ... at last, here’s the bloody cavalry,’ she said, as the blue swirling lights of an ambulance swung round the corner and raced towards them.

Pete had gotten to his feet by the time the ambulance had pulled to a halt, its back doors just a few feet away. He tugged his sodden trousers from his skin, shaking his legs. ‘For god’s sake,’ he muttered darkly.

The front doors of the ambulance opened and the driver and a paramedic tumbled out and jogged back towards them.

‘I should have known,’ the driver said, unable to stifle a laugh at the scene, Harry bent in half, his arms outstretched, the hem of the jumper still in Chloe’s grasp; Pete hopping from one foot to the other. ‘The deadly duo! You haven’t called us out just to help you get this jumper off, have you?’

‘Fuck you ... Mike,’ Harry said, recognising the voice. ‘I’ve been ... stabbed.’


‘By himself,’ Chloe said. ‘He picked up a knife by the sharp end.’

‘Contaminating the evidence,’ Pete added.

Mike tutted. ‘Did nobody teach you how to use a knife and fork, Harry?’

‘Stop fucking ... about and ... get me ... get me ... to a ... to a ... hospital,’ he stuttered with cold. ‘I’m ... losing ... blood.’

Mike tugged the jumper back down, freeing Harry’s arms and revealing his bright red face. ‘You’re sopping wet.’

‘No ... shit ... Einstein.’

‘He fell into a pond,’ Chloe explained. ‘We were trying to get him out of his wet clothes.’

‘Not content stabbing yourself, you wanted a go at drowning yourself, as well?’

‘He wanted to be a killer whale,’ Pete added.

‘I’ll bleeding ... stab ... stab you ... unless ... unless ... you shut the fuck up.’

‘Jesus, lighten up, Harry,’ Mike said, helping him up into the back of the ambulance. They were only jokes.

‘He’s all laughed out,’ Chloe said. ‘It was rubbish jokes that got him into this mess in the first place. Isn’t that right, Harry? Perhaps we should just melt you down, make a tyre and call it a Goodyear?’

* * *

‘There you are,’ Inspector Johnny Cronin said brusquely, poking his head between the curtains. ‘I’ve been looking all over for you.’

Harry and Chloe looked up at their boss.

Harry was sitting up on a bed wearing a borrowed t-shirt and a dressing gown, feeling slightly vulnerable in the absence of underpants. The hospital staff were letting him rest there until Pete returned with a fresh set of clothes on the understanding that he didn’t sneak in beneath the sheets, otherwise they’d have to change the whole set. He had just about warmed through in the overheated ward.

Chloe was sitting in a bedside chair reading a copy of celebrity gossip magazine. She rose to her feet, looking sheepish. ‘Can I be excused now, Sir?’ She really couldn’t take any more of Harry’s inane banter.

‘No. Where’s that other idiot?’

‘Garda Cahill?’ Gaines said.

‘Who else do you think I mean?’

‘He’s gone to get changed and get Harry a fresh set of clothes.’

Cronin shook his head. ‘All you had to do was find the knife, not audition for an episode of E.R. How’s your hand, Harry?’

Harry tugged back the sleeve of the dressing gown, pink digits sticking out from a wrap of bandages. ‘Ten stitches.’

‘The doctor said it’s a relatively superficial wound,’ Chloe said, ‘not deep, just long.’

‘Superficial? It took ten stitches to sew it back up.’

‘Don’t be such a baby. They’ve said you can go home, haven’t they? No reason why you can’t go to work; just keep the dressing dry.’

‘So where’s this knife then?’ Cronin asked.

‘Knife?’ Harry said.

‘You know, the thing you stabbed yourself with. The knife that Jimmy Burke used to stab that poor bastard.’


‘Don’t look at me, I haven’t got it.’

‘What do you mean, you haven’t got it. I gave it to you.’

‘No, you didn’t. You must have given it to Pete.’

‘Given me what?’ Pete said, slipping between the curtains, wearing a dry, clean uniform and carrying a sports bag. ‘Sir,’ he said, noticing Cronin.

‘The knife,’ Cronin said.

‘The knife? Harry had it.’

‘I haven’t had it since you got me out of that bloody pool. I gave it to one of you two. You put it in an evidence bag.’

‘Well, you didn’t give it to me. Chloe?’

‘Don’t look at me. He gave it to you.’

‘Uh-uh, I don’t think so. You must have put it in your coat pocket,’ he said to Harry.

‘Don’t try and blame me, I found the bloody thing and I gave it to one of you two.’

‘For fuck’s sake!’ Cronin snapped. ‘I don’t care who’s got it! Just find it, okay. Without it, Jimmy Burke will probably walk.’

Burke was the local gang leader, a hard man with a fearsome reputation for having a short temper and quick fists. He’d risen rapidly through the ranks, eventually wrestling control from his former boss after a bloody coup. He’d been arrested the previous evening for a knife attack that had left a young drug pusher fighting for his life. Only Burke denied all knowledge of the attack, a witness had withdrawn his statement, and there was no material evidence in the form of bloody clothes or the knife.

‘Where’s your bag of wet clothes?’ Pete asked.

‘Under the chair,’ Harry replied.

Chloe reached in under the chair and pulled the bag out. ‘Even if we find it, it’s going to be covered in Harry’s fingerprints.’

‘That’s right, try and dump me in the shit. It wasn’t like I was trying to stab myself with the damn thing.’

‘You didn’t stab yourself, it’s a superficial wound.’

‘How can it be superficial?’ Harry said angrily, turning towards her. ‘It took ten stitches to close it up!’

‘For god’s sake, cover yourself up!’ She said, motioning towards where Harry’s dressing gown had fallen open. ‘You might have the blubber, but you don’t have one of a whale’s other attributes. It looks like a finger puppet that’s withered and died.’

Pete snorted a laugh as Harry flushed red, tugging at the dressing gown.

‘Enough!’ Cronin snapped. ‘I don’t care who’s to blame. All I care about is finding that knife and putting Jimmy Burke away for a very long time. If the knife’s not here, then you better get yourself back out to those woods and find it.’

‘I can’t go out again like this?’ Harry said, waving his hand.

‘Do I look like someone who gives a shit? Just find that knife. And get some underpants on. I agree with Garda Gaines; that thing looks like a shrivelled mole. I’ve seen more meat on a chicken leg.’

* * *

‘Your nuts would be shrivelled to raisins if you’d spent two hours shivering to death.’

‘It’s not me you need to convince, Harry. I couldn’t care less if squirrels had crawled up your leg and nibbled your nuts off. All I want to do is find this knife and go home to bed.’

‘I don’t know what you’re moaning about, it’s me who was stabbed and fell in the pool. Ten bloody stitches.’ He held up his hand.

‘You’ll just have to use the other hand and pretend it’s a stranger. Assuming you can get a grip.’

‘Ha, ha. Very funny, Pete.’

‘Am I laughing? If it wasn’t for you, we’d have been at home hours ago.’

‘If it wasn’t me, we’d have never have found that knife in the first place.’

‘Or lost it.’

‘Oh, no. No you don’t. I didn’t lose that knife. One of you two did.’

‘I don’t think so,’ Chloe said, opening the back of the car and climbing in. ‘You were the last one anyone remembers having the knife, trying to fight off a marauding condom that was several sizes too big.’

‘Fuck you, Chloe.’

‘In your dreams, Harry. And you can go fuck yourself back. Because of you, Johnny Cronin thinks I’m a fuck-up like you two.’

‘Somehow I doubt it. Johnny Cronin thinks the sun shines out of your pretty little arse.’

‘Well?’ Pete interrupted.

‘Well, what?’ Gaines said.

‘Did you find the knife?’

‘No. It’s not reception or the treatment room or in the ambulance. If it got this far, it’s disappeared.’


‘We’ll have to go back to the woods; to that pool.’

‘I can’t get this bandage wet,’ Harry said, holding up his hand.

‘You can wear a glove, or put a bag over it, but you’re coming,’ Chloe said. ‘You’re the one who stabbed himself with the bloody thing.’

‘You make it sound like I did it on purpose.’

‘A fat shirker like you, I wouldn’t put it past you,’ she said testily.

Harry twisted in the seat. ‘You may have the looks, Chloe, but you can be a right royal pain in the arse.’

‘At least I’ve got a pretty little arse, unlike your ...’

‘Knock it off, the pair of you,’ Pete interrupted, starting the car. ‘It’s like listening to a broken record. Let’s get back to the woods and find this bloody knife. And any more bickering and you’ll both be in detention.’

* * *

They were trudging through the undergrowth, tracing the route they’d taken to the laneway, scanning the ground for the knife. The soft drizzle was still falling, but the cold east wind had died to a light breeze.

‘Bloody Jimmy Burke,’ Harry muttered. ‘This is all his fault, stabbing that poor bastard. He’d kill his own grandmother if he had to.’

‘He’d kill her for fun,’ Chloe said. ‘The man is psychotic. He should be locked up in a mental institution.’

‘He’s bad not mad,’ Pete said. ‘He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a sociopath.’

‘Psychopath, sociopath, what difference does it make?’ Chloe replied. ‘He’s got a screw loose somewhere. His has scary eyes; they have no life in them.’

‘How do you make a blonde’s eyes light up?’ Harry asked.

‘I’m warning you, Harry,’ Chloe said, her dyed blonde hair tucked up under her hat.

‘Shine a light in her ears.’

Neither Chloe nor Pete laughed.

‘Okay, okay. How about this one instead. What’s the difference between God and a surgeon?’ Harry asked.

‘God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon,’ Pete replied, tugging a bramble free that had snagged on his coat.

‘The guy who sewed up my hand thought he was bloody Zeus or Thor or one of them. A real cocky bastard.’

‘You’d think you were giving birth,’ Chloe said, ‘given the carry-on you were making. He treated you like a child, because you acted like a child.’

‘And he treated you like a teenage girl. Draw your own conclusions.’

They continued in silence for a minute or so.

‘Concerned with her shortness of breath, a man takes his wife to the hospital,’ Harry said, ‘The doctor gives her a thorough examination and then gives his prognosis: ‘Your wife has acute angina.’ To which the husband replied: ‘I know, it’s just a shame about her face.’

‘Give it a rest, Harry,’ Pete said.

‘Do you get it? Acute angina.’

‘For god’s sake, Harry.’

‘I’m just trying to lighten the mood. Jesus. God knows it’s been a crappy day.’

‘Well, those kind of jokes aren’t helping, okay? That’s how you ended up in that pool in the first place.’

‘Jesus, they’re just jokes. Why did the skeleton go to the hospital? To have his ghoul stones removed. Ghoul stones. How’s that? Better? Jesus, it was me that was stabbed.’

‘Harry, we’re not in the mood.’

They had reached the pool. The three of them stared down at the dark water, the withered condom still floating on the surface.

‘Now what?’ Harry said.

‘One of you goes down and checks for the knife,’ Chloe said.

‘One of us?’

‘I trudged round the hospital looking for the bloody thing.’

‘I’ll go,’ Pete said, setting off down the short slope.

Harry and Chloe watched him hunt around in the undergrowth.

‘It’s not here,’ he declared after a few minutes.

‘It must be in the pond,’ Chloe said.

‘Well, I’m not going in to look for it. They’ll have to get the divers in.’

‘For that? It’s only about ten feet square.’

‘I don’t see you in any hurry to dive in. It can wait for tomorrow. It’s not going anywhere, is it?’

He headed back up the steep slope. As he reached the lip one of his feet slipped on the damp leaves, shooting out from under him. Instinctively, he grabbed at Harry’s leg for support. Then both of them were tumbling. Pete hit the freezing water first, Harry landing on top of him, forcing his head under the surface.

‘Fuck!’ Harry roared.

Pete shot up, his arms thrashing.

Chloe had her hands on her knees, unable to hold back the laughter.

‘What’s so fucking funny?’ Harry asked.

‘You. The pair of you.’

‘Get down here and help us get out.’

‘I don’t think so, Harry. Us blondes aren’t very good swimmers. Besides, you’ve still got the life raft from earlier. You better check for that knife now you’re in.’

‘Fuck the knife.’

‘I wouldn’t if I were you. I doubt acute angina will suit you, Harry.’

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

Thank god for Joe Lansdale. His Vanilla Ride made sure I got through one the blackest weeks in Irish history with a smile on my face for at least some of the time. My only problem with the book was that I had to stop reading every now and again to let the cramp drop out of my grin muscles. Top quality stuff. Unfortunately, the week didn't end quite as I hoped. Four of my colleagues and friends retired from work. I was tasked with giving a small speech about one of them; someone who I've worked with closely for a number of years and is a very good friend. It started to go downhill the minute I was handed the microphone. It was if my head was plunged into a fishtank and I dropped into an odd parallel reality in which the room was slightly out of focus and muffled. I'd actually spent a bit of time composing a speech in which I said why he was a really great guy, what he'd achieved in his career, and why he'd be missed. My script wouldn't come into focus. Heaven knows what I did actually say. The first thing I did afterwards was apologise. Forty years service to have his leaving speech cocked up. I can quite happily stand in front of a 1,000 people and give an academic talk, but ask me to do a personal one and it all goes skew-whiff. Disaster results.

My posts this week
What's 'smart' about emigration
Key Thinkers on Space and Place
Global reading challenge update
Spiv and spin economics
Review of Faithless by Joyce Carol Oates
Household travel survey
Fifty words to kill your victim
Unfinished estates are not a problem after all?
Estates? What estates? There are no estates here ...
Review of I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

Friday, November 19, 2010

Review of I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane (1947, E.P. Dutton)

When Jack Williams is discovered shot dead, the investigative cop Pat Chambers calls his acquaintance and Jack’s closest friend, private investigator, Mike Hammer. Jack took a Japanese bayonet, losing his arm, to save Hammer. Angry at Jack’s death, Hammer vows to identify the killer ahead of the police and to exact fatal revenge. His starting point are the guests at a party at Jack’s apartment the night he died – Jack’s fiancée, a recovering dope addict, a beautiful psychiatrist, twin socialite sisters, a college student, and a mobster. But as he tracks them down, so too does the killer, and soon it’s not only Jack who is dead and Hammer is firmly in the killer’s sights.

In I, The Jury Spillane has the melodrama turned up to eleven, and from the sensibilities of the new century it’s a little difficult not to judge it with a Spinal Tap eye. This is hardboiled magnified with stereotype and caricature galore. Mike Hammer is a tough guy PI, oozing testosterone, with a short fuse, and a sense of conviction that he is the police, judge, jury and executioner. He’s Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Hammett’s Sam Spade, on steroids. Charlotte Manning is the femme fatale. And the other characters are straight off the peg. The story is told in a fairly workman like manner, with the pace kept up tempo and the dialogue snappy, though it’s difficult to imagine much of it actually being uttered by anyone except people playing caricatures. The plot is interesting enough, and it twists and turns, though it’s clear who the killer is from a long way out. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book, but for me at least it didn’t live up to its billing as one of the classic reads of crime fiction (note, that’s not to say it wasn’t an important and influential book) and it’s not in the same league as Chandler, Hammett and James Cain. Overall, worth a read, but don’t expect your socks to be blown off.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fifty words to kill your victim

'Fifty words to kill your victim' is an invitation by Margot to write a dribble (a 50 word story, a drabble being a 100 word story). I've had a go at two. Check out more over at Margot's Confessions of a Mystery Writer.


The two women stared down at the man in the bed, wired with tubes, a screen beeping.

‘I’ve been with him for ten years. We have the kids.’

‘And I’m still married to him. If someone accidentally presses this button,’ her hand hovered, ‘then everything is mine. C’est la vie.’

I'm not sure how well this one works. An experiment ...


Strolling. Entering. Shopping. Loitering. Checking. Queuing. Staring. Blinking. Nodding. Threatening. Shouting. Gesticulating. Punching. Wrestling. Grabbing. Running. Gasping. Wheezing. Tripping. Falling. Cursing. Scrambling. Hobbling. Panting. Fumbling. Muttering. Opening. Sitting. Shutting. Starting. Accelerating. Relaxing. Grinning. Tuning. Humming. Tapping. Singing. Swerving. Turning. Skidding. Spinning. Flipping. Cartwheeling. Bouncing. Crashing. Bleeding. Laughing. Spluttering. Crying. Praying ...

Review of Faithless by Joyce Carol Oates from Best American Noir of the Century

Spinetingler Magazine has put together a set of reviews of all the short stories in Best American Noir of the Century edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, a collection of 39 stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). I was asked to write the review of Faithless by Joyce Carol Oates originally published in the winter 1997 issue of Kenyon Review. It was then selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 1998 and later served as the title story for her short story collection, Faithless: Tales of Transgression, published in 2001. You can read the review here and also check out the other reviews here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Global Reading Challenge update

Rather than slavishly work towards the 2010 Global Reading Challenge, I thought I'd read as normal over the year and then see where I stood towards the end. The challenge was to read three books per continent. Below is where I stand at present. Basically, I'm missing Antarctica completely and I'm short of a South American book. I've actually got two DNF in that category, one of which I might go back to. So overall, not too bad; I might even manage to complete the challenge.

North America
The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (USA)
Havana Fever by Leonardo Padura (Cuba)
Dead I May Well Be by Adrian McKinty (USA/Mexico)

Via Delle Oche by Carlo Lucarelli (Italy)
Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Pers Wahloo (Sweden)
Brodeck's Report by Phillipe Claudel (France)

Dead Set by Kel Robertson (Australia)
Truth by Peter Temple (Australia)
Vodka Doesn't Freeze by Liah Giarrantano (Australia)

Shinjuku Shark by Arimasa Osawa (Japan)
Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett (Thailand)
The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Coterill (Laos)

A Deadly Trade by Michael Stanley (Botswana)
Instruments of Darkness by Robert Wlison (Benin)
Killer Country by Mike Nicols (South Africa)

South America
The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Brazil)
Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo (Argentina)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Key Thinkers on Space and Place

The second edition of Key Thinkers on Space and Place was published today. For some reason I thought that doing a second edition would be less work than the original. I failed to appreciate that the 52 original chapters would all have to revised and re-edited as if they were new entries as well as the 14 new chapters (the length of an ordinary edited book) shepparded through the process. It comes in at 510 pages (a quarter of million words). At 27 quid/52 dollars it's a bargain (honestly)!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

The reading on Friday seemed to go okay. It's only the second one I've done, I'm not really sure the best way to approach them. I decided to read a few short pieces, rather than one longer one. I started with a couple of six worders, then moved to a drabble, then a short story, before reading the opening scenes of The Rule Book, The White Gallows and Ghostland. The short story I read was Undergrowth. The question that was most disconcerting was whether I had thought of trying to write something with some comedy in it, which was a fairly damning critique of Undergrowth, one of my Harry and Pete stories!

My posts this week:
Shanghai on Shannon
Review of Killer Country by Mike Nicols
Six worders
Postcards to NAMA
Review of Enough is Enough by Fintan O'Toole
Reading Room
Saturday snippet: Vanilla Ride by Joe Lansdale

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Saturday Snippet: Vanilla Ride by Joe Lansdale

I picked up a copy of Vanilla Ride by Joe Lansdale this afternoon and boy am I looking forward to reading it. Hap Collins and Leonard Pine are two of my favourite characters. If you haven't tried one of their stories then make haste to your nearest store or fire up Amazon, Book Depository, or whoever you use and get your mitts on one. The man sure can write. Here's the opening few lines of Vanilla Ride.

I hadn't been shot at in a while, and no-one had hit me in the head for a whole month or two. It was kind of a record, and I was starting to feel special.

Brett and I were upstairs in our little rented house, lying in bed, breathing hard, having just arrived at the finish line of a slow, sweet race that at times can seem like a competitive sport, but when played right, even when you're the last to arrive, can make you feel like a winner.

In that moment, life was good.

Brett sat up and fluffed her pillow behind her back and pushed her long bloodred hair to the side with one hand, shoved her chest forward in a way that made me feel mighty lucky, said, "I haven't had that much fun since I pistol-whipped a redheaded midget."

I'm only a few pages in, but the writing is tight, dry and witty, with great banter. A couple more lines.

Used to, you could leave your wallet on the porch swing and no one would bother it. These days, you left a cheese grater out, someone would steal the holes.


Leonard said, "Man you could have at least put on pants. That robe is a little too peekaboo."

"My motto," I said, "is if you've got it, flaunt it."

"What you're flauntin' is enough to make a man turn a gun on himself," Leonard said.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Reading Room

I haven't managed to finish 'I, the Jury' by Mickey Spillane for today's Forgotten Friday review, so it'll have to wait until next week.

I'm giving a reading tonight in The Reading Room in Carrick-on-Shannon at 8pm. It's pretty unlikely that anyone reading this will be able to attend, but if you are then you'd be very welcome.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review of Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic by Fintan O’Toole (Faber and Faber, 2010)

It’s a year on from Fintan O’Toole’s damning critique of the Celtic Tiger model of development in Ship of Fools and his analysis of the political and economic decisions that sailed Ireland onto the rocks. In Enough is Enough he turns his attention to what he sees at the core problems at the heart of Ireland’s present woes and what needs to happen to rebuilt a new republic fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. Split into two parts, in the first half of the book he argues that there are five myths that shape how Ireland functions – these are 1) that Ireland operates as a Republic, 2) that people are politically represented, 3) that the Dail functions as a parliamentary democracy, 4) that every decent service was delivered by charity and through the church rather than by the state, 5) that Ireland is a wealthy country. In each chapter, he reveals through polemical argument how each of these supposed truths are in fact self-delusions; that there is in fact deep flaws in the nature of Irish political democracy that require fundamental redress. In the second half of the book, he sets out five ‘decencies’ that should underpin the ideals of new republic. These are the decencies of security, health, education, equality and citizenship. In an appendix he sets out 50 suggestions for immediate actions.

Enough is Enough is an engaging read. O’Toole writes with passion and at a level that is easy to follow. The argument is polemical and forceful, and he makes good use of sources and data to back-up his contentions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does feel a little rushed, but clearly this is a book trying to tap into and react to the zeitgeist. And he makes a convincing case that there are a number of problems with how the Irish political system functions and the ideals that underpin its operation that do need revisiting and revision. However, whilst he sets out the ways in which he would like reform, it is often at a quite conceptual or abstract level. Where there are specific suggestions, these often lack sufficient detail as to what changes would need to happen and their consequences. At a more general level, it is also not clear where the impetus and drive is going to come from to enact the kinds of changes he feels are necessary – it is certainly unlikely to come from the present political classes. In this sense, the book sets out a broad vision that provides a framing for a more detailed debate, but does not quite set out the road map he wishes for in his opening chapter, nor the mechanisms needed to shift citizens from the present map to his new one.

More broadly, politics and ideals, only gets us so far. Building a new republic will not simply consist of reconstituting the political base of society and hoping all else flows from that process. It is clear, to me at least, that we also need to rethink the Irish economic model predicated as it is on a form of neoliberalism. In other words, the book would have been more powerful if it had been widened to re-envisioning the broader political economy of the country. Clearly, setting out such a new vision would have been a more challenging task, but one that we undoubtedly need to undertake. That said, the book is nonetheless an important and timely contribution to the on-going debate about Ireland’s future and it deserves to be read and debated.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Six worders

Every now and again life just seems to become ultra-busy. Now is one such time. Flat out with stuff, hence relative neglect of the blog. And today is little better. I'm reduced to three short six word stories:

Blind drunk, broken stilletto, ripped knickers.

Accelerating, turning, skidding, flipping, bouncing, cutting.

Cold, black, still; brightness, shouting, darkness.

Blame the radio. I thought I was doing a 15 minute radio interview last night at 10pm. I ended up being on a panel for two hours discussing all kinds of news stories. Didn't get home nearly 1am. Enjoyable in an odd, unnerving way.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review of Killer Country by Mike Nicol (2010, Old Street)

Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso have a shady past as arms dealers. Now they run a security agency to protect rich South Africans and tourists visiting the country. They also keep an eye out for potential lucrative deals they can launder some of their ill-gotten gains through and look to have found it with a luxury property development. The only problem is that Obed Chocho, one of the new breed of corrupt South African politicians who has his fingers in all kinds of pies, also has designs on the scheme. From his temporary prison cell Chocho runs his empire, comfortable in the knowledge that he’ll soon be free thanks to the efforts of Sheemina February, a ruthless, scheming lawyer who sees him as a handing stepping stone to other things. February, Bishop and Buso have a turbulent history and Chocho will stop at nothing to make sure he gains control of the development. Soon Chocho’s wife is dead and there is a trail of bodies as a convoluted dance between the principal characters unfolds.

Mike Nicols writes in a confident, assured style, telling the story of Killer Country from multiple perspectives, tracing the thoughts and actions of all the principal characters. The characterisation is solid, with the dozen or so principal actors all multi-layered and complex, each flawed in some way and yet not simply cast as a ‘goodie’ or ‘baddie’. Indeed, there are no ‘good guys’ as such, all involved in deceit, corruption and violence as an everyday part of their lives and for whom morality is a fluid, grey soup. The writing strong and each scene is well structured and penned. Indeed, each scene almost operates as nice flash fiction pieces. Where the novel struggled a little was in the linking of these scenes into a larger whole. Because the story is told from so many perspectives, it sometimes seems a little bitty and disjointed, disrupting the flow. That said, the story drags the reader along. Moreover it evokes a very strong sense of place and also provides a fascinating insight into the complex social relations of the new South Africa. Overall, an enjoyable, complex, and sometimes unsettling novel that twists and turns to the last page.