Monday, April 30, 2012

Shots of noir

I think I'm well behind on my challenge to read 365 short stories this year.  I have managed, at least, to read a couple of flash fiction pieces published last week by two of my favourite short writers, Kieran Shea and Matthew Funk.

The Key by Kieran Shea is up at Shotgun Honey
Voodoo Love by Matthew C Funk at Flash Fiction Offensive

Check out these stories and also their others, which can be found all over the crime fiction flash sites.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

Over the past couple of days I've been reading through one of my draft novels - Stiffed.  It's been in the drawer for about six months.  I thought it was pretty clean, but I've found myself doing a lot of minor tweaking - rejigging sentences, fixing typos, etc.  It hasn't extended as far as major revisions and changes to the plot, thankfully, but I'm starting to wonder if it needs some thickening out in places.  It's certainly interesting to read it through having not worked on it for a good while.  It's the first book I've written in the first person and it's kind of odd to read a story in which the first person perspective isn't your own but it's written by you.

My posts this week:

Flash, bang, miss ... Bloody Idiot
Review of Old School by Dan O'Shea
Tron talk rendered Tron-like
Census 2011: Town and Country data
Review of Where the Devil Can't Go by Anya Lipska
Bulldog Salts

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Bulldog Salts

Jake Salts had a face like a bulldog given a swift kick to the balls and a temperament twice as mean.  The cell door opened, the local sergeant filling the frame.



‘More like prison.’

‘Didn’t do nothing.’  Prone to bouts of deep melancholy and unholy tempers Bulldog led a mostly solitary existence on a dilapidated small holding.
‘Threatening behaviour.  Again.’

‘They were on my land.’ His prime entertainment was chasing startled walkers from his fields, waving a shotgun and hurling obscenities. 

‘Doesn’t matter.’

‘Matters to me!’

‘This scene is getting tired, Jake.  Like a dog with three legs.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, April 27, 2012

Review of Where the Devil Can’t Go by Anya Lipska (Tadeusz Books, 2011)

Janusz Kiszka left Poland for London in the 1980s, disillusioned and grief-stricken.  Thirty years later he’s a respected member of the Polish community, dabbling in the shadier side of life to make ends meet and keeping an eye on the new generation of migrants to the city.  When a priest asks him to find a young waitress that’s gone missing he reluctantly agrees to try and track her down.  Without knowing it, he’s let himself in for a whole heap of trouble.  Part of that trouble is DC Natalie Kershaw, a newly promoted cop who’s ambitious, spiky and prone to jumping to conclusions.  She’s been assigned the task of identifying a naked girl fished from the River Thames and tracking down her killer.  She soon has Janusz in her sights, though it seems the answers to both their mysteries actually lie in Poland.

Where the Devil Can’t Go is a competently written thriller with a political subtext.  The strength of the book is the sense of place and community relations in London, the characterisation of Janusz and Kershaw, and interweaving of the two main plots as they twist round each other and intersect.  The writing is generally engaging, though the plot was a little uneven, with the first half of the book stronger than the second.  The first half was very good and demonstrated Lipska’s undoubted talent as a writer.  However, the time in Poland was a little rushed and underdeveloped, and the rise to the climax somewhat contrived.  It’s difficult to discuss the ending without giving spoilers, but in the age of photocopiers, scanners, the internet, smart phones and so on the set-up played weakly and undermined credibility.  Overall, an enjoyable read that will appeal to police procedural fans looking for something slightly different to normal fare.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tron talk rendered Tron-like

Below is a picture put up on twitter earlier this week of the talk I presented in London last week at the screening of Tron organised by Passenger Films/UCL Urban Labs. Pretty cool rendering of the venue into a Tron-like state.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Review of Old School by Dan O’Shea (Snubnose Press, 2012)

Old School is a collection of 16 flash fiction stories.  Unlike many short story collections, Old School has a theme - getting old - and is organised into three parts: Middle Aged; The Golden Years; The Afterlife.  The stories are all tight and punchy, with some nice expressive prose.  Evenness in quality is sometimes a problem with collections.  In general, Old School is strong throughout and most stories pack a solid blow or twist.  There are a couple of stories that are perhaps a little too short and could have done with a tad more elaboration, but there are definitely no duds.  The standout stories for me were Sheepshank and The Summer of Fishing.  Interestingly, Sheepshank was longer than the other pieces and those extra words allowed some real depth to be developed.  As a side issue, given the book is published in an e-format it could really do with an interactive table of contents - without it it’s difficult to jump around the book, which for a short story collection is very useful (especially when it comes to writing a review and you want to revisit some stories).  Overall, an enjoyable collection of stories that are a cut above average fare.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Flash, bang, miss ... Bloody Idiot

Below was my entry to the Flashbang writing challenge - 150 word or less crime story.  The long list was announced yesterday and I didn't make the last 25.  No great surprise - I got hung up on playing with the form (two sections, four paragraphs each, first and last lines echoing) rather than the story.  

Bloody Idiot

An idiot.  He’d been made to look an idiot. 

Well he’d have his revenge.  Rolly Thompson was a dead man walking.  Assuming he took the usual route home from the pub. 

His wiped his sweating palms on his jeans, felt his stomach knot and twist. 

A swaying figure came into view.  His fingers flexed on the knife handle, trying to get a comfortable grip as he prepared to launch himself out from behind the bushes.


Barry Halpin stared at the bathroom mirror.  The man staring back looked defeated; pasty skin, black bags under bloodshot eyes. 

Revenge had seemed a good idea with a skinful of beer and whisky chasers.  It had lost its appeal the second he tasted the blood spurting from Rolly’s neck.

There was a crash downstairs, the cry of ‘Police!’ and the thump of heavy boots on stairs. 

An idiot.  He’d been a bloody idiot.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

A busy week of work and travel.  After a night out in Warwick, I'm now in Birmingham airport waiting for flight back to Ireland.  Thankfully they have free wifi, so I've been able to catch up on some email and internet stuff.  Rather than mess about online for the next three hours though, I'm going to dig the kindle out of my bag and read Anya Lipska's Where the Devil Can't Go.  I'm about a third of the way in at the minute and enjoying it.

My posts this week
And half of nothing is?
Tron - some observations
Cover design - Killer Reels
Moving on
Grading planning in Ireland: An Taisce's verdict
Review of Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella
Title advice needed

Saturday, April 21, 2012

And half of nothing is?

‘You have next to nothing now, but when I’m finished with you won’t even have that!’

‘You’re a cold hearted bitch, Maggie. Yeah, I’m ... we’re bankrupt, but I can start again.’

‘I’ll take whatever you make. I’m going to bleed you dry, Darren. You’ll be on life support.’

‘At least I’ll have a life without you.’

‘One not worth living. You’re going to have to keep me in the life to which I’m accustomed.’

‘That shouldn’t be too difficult, since act like you were born in the gutter.’

‘You’re ... You’re a big nothing!’

‘And half of nothing is?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, April 20, 2012

Tron: Some observations

I gave a talk last night at the Passenger Films/UCL Urban Labs screening of Tron in Bethnal Green, London. Some short films were also shown - Augmented City by Keiichi Matsuda, and two films by FactoryFifteen (check out both sites from some really innovative film making). The films were shown in St John's, a working church, which was interesting in itself. The screen (larger than the one below) was strung between the pulpit and a statue of St Mary. Pews do not make comfortable cinema seats! Below are my notes about the films.

Tron charts the attempt by a video arcade owner, Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges, to hack into ENCOM, the company he used to work for and whose boss stole his video programs. His attempts at hacking are blocked by ENCOM’s Master Control Program (MCP). One night, after breaking into ENCOM yet again, Flynn is forcibly pulled into the virtual world by the MCP. In the virtual world, programs (who are the doubles of their users) are subjugated by the MCP, who tries to get the programs to pledge their allegiance to the MCP and renounce their users. If they refuse to do so, they are forced into gladiatorial contests in a Game Grid until they de-rezz (die). In order to defeat the MCP, Flynn must find and help TRON, a system security program. At its heart it’s a typical Disney movie of good against evil (or in the films terms blue against red).

Tron pioneered the use of computer generated special effects and also provided influential representations of virtual space within computer networks. Visually it reminds me of Spectrum and Atari graphics mashed with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Star Wars’ Death Star and a bit of The Wizard of Oz (also in plot). Somewhat oddly, however, its landscapes are peculiarly empty - a massive grided space with singular bits, isolated programmes, and lacking in busy activity and millions of packets flying everywhere. (Not much it seemed happened in computer networks in 1982). It was made at a time when writers, artists and film makers were just starting to think about the form, meaning and social, political and economic consequences of everyday computing. It’s the nascent era of cyberpunk - William Gibson’s Neuromancer was published in 1984 - and Tron is Disney’s addition to the emerging genre - slightly dystopian but with a Disney ending where the people triumph and get their just rewards.

And like cyberpunk, Tron opened up windows through which to explore a series of Cartesian dualisms that new, networked computing seemed to trouble: nature/technology; fixed/fluid; embodied/disembodied; real/virtual; public/private, as well as explore notions of artificial intelligence and power within new technological landscapes.

Somewhat oddly, however, the world of 1s and 0s - inside the machine - is very Cartesian - built of Euclidean geometry and having the same spatial qualities as the geographic world - there are x, y, z coordinates, there is gravity, there is scale, there is distance (which cannot be jumped), there is linear time, there is materiality and death, there are distinct power geometries in terms of how the landscape is organized and governed. In fact the gridded world of the mainframe and network mirrors almost precisely the real world (even down to programs mirroring visually their users or creators), and yet it is distinctly separate from it. Throughout the movie there is a very clear division between ‘the world in the machine’ and ‘the real world’, though that starts to dissolve in the end frames as the city turns to neon, perhaps giving some inkling to a new world and era emerging.

This thinking of the virtual in Cartesian terms extends well beyond Tron. Early virtual worlds and game-spaces are distinctly Euclidean in nature and mirror the spatial geometries and social norms of ‘real space’. Even domains that possess no spatial qualities are rendered so through spatialisations.

In our book, Mapping Cyberspace, myself and Martin Dodge created a basic topology of the geometries of material and immaterial attributes in geographic and cyberspace and how they are visually rendered. Maps and spatialisations dominate. Such maps and spatialisations however are almost exclusively Euclidean in nature. The only variations are various forms of site maps such as file structures that used a graphing metaphor. It seems we find it difficult to imagine space other than Euclidean or scaled.

The same kind of spatial imaginings are evident in Keiichi Matsuda’s Augmented City, where the various interfaces are projected into and arranged around body spaces - but how can it be otherwise? After all, these are virtual projections into geographic space. The same is also true of Factory 15’s videos, though they are more playful around notions of space and time, the geometries of form and matter, ideas of travel and the past.

What Matsuda’s augmented reality videos do, unlike Tron, is two things. First, they bring the inside of the machine outside revealing their intermeshing rather than separation. Second, they illustrate the extent to which everyday life and spaces are now infused with software: the existing state of everyware wherein computation is available at any point on the planet - either through networks or embedded into objects; how the systems we engage with are thoroughly coded and the extent to which we are all software workers (in its broad sense, those that engage with software on a regular basis to perform tasks) and our lives shaped by code. And Factory Fifteen work projects everyware forward to envisage new space-time relations, especially with respect to notions of the past (and the effects of life-logging) and of place (and ideas of placelessness through abundant connections).

In Tron, software is in the game arcade and in ENCOM. It has found a foothold in entertainment, business and government. Software workers are relatively small in number. Today, software is deeply and pervasively embedded into the systems and infrastructure of the urban and rural lives and in the management and governance of societies. Software-enabled technologies and services augment and facilitate how we understand and plan places, how we manage services and utilities, and how we live everyday lives. Software provides the core tools underpinning the use of technologies and infrastructures essential for the development of smart cities (smart buildings and environment, intelligent transport and utility systems, dense telematic and informatic infrastructures), is facilitating the generation and analysis of ‘big data’ (enormous, dynamic, interconnected datasets relating to people, objects, interactions, transactions and territories), and providing the tools and services of the knowledge society and economy. It’s not overstating the case to note that across a diverse set of everyday tasks – domestic chores, work, shopping, travelling, communicating, governing and policing – software makes a difference to how social, spatial and economic life takes place. Even systems that at first appear dumb - e.g., water system - software is at work.

In our more recent work, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life, myself and Martin Dodge examine the present state of everyware. We detail a basic typology of how software is embedded in everyday life: coded objects, coded infrastructures, coded processes, and coded assemblages

coded objects - rely on software to perform as designed, includes objects that can log their own use thus create their own histories

coded infrastructures - that link coded objects together or are controlled/managed by code

coded processes - the transactions and flows of data across coded infrastructure

coded assemblages - where coded objects, infrastructures, processes are bound together into a dense assemblage of inter-related and connected systems (e.g. par excellance is the airport)

These coded entities transduce coded space and code/space - produce particular spatial relations and forms; software is necessary to bring space into being. If the code fails then the space is not produced as intended.

To return to Tron from the present then, it is perhaps worth reflecting on two questions: what would it mean to be ‘in the machine’ when the machine is everyware and becoming inside out? And is there any way past the Cartesian imaginary?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cover design - Killer Reels

I got loads of great feedback on the potential title for the short story collection I've put together. It was very much appreciated and really helped my thinking and decision making. In the end I decided to go for one that no-one selected or put forward - Killer Reels. I like the double play of the title - binding 'death/movies' on the one hand, and signalling 'great stories' on the other. Also, the stories are all pieces of flash fiction - 700-1500 words each; in Irish music a reel is a quick dance and they are ofter strung together in sets with no pause between them. Killer Reels is a set of interlinked short stories where each story refers back to the previous and gives a taster of the next. Below is the cover as designed by JT Lindroos, which I'm very pleased with. If you're looking for a cover, he's your man. Excellent to work with.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Moving on

After a couple of years with an agent I'm moving on. It's a week since we parted on good terms. It took a fair while to get an agent in the first place, so deciding to part company was a difficult one. In the end, it was time to try something different as what I was submitting was not fitting the 'big commerical thriller' brief and the feedback from publishers was the material was 'too Irish'. To be honest, I'm not interested in writing big commercial thrillers and think Ireland is a fascinating place in which to set stories. I want to write to my ideas rather than to the seemingly narrow, mainstream publisher's perception of the market. I write fiction for enjoyment, not simply profit. I'm not saying I wouldn't mind some success, but I also want to have integrity. Naive? Probably. Anyway, I'm going to have a bit of a think and a re-group and work out how to proceed. I've four novels in the drawer - the third McEvoy novel and three comic crime capers. The first thing I'm doing is releasing a collection of short stories. After that we'll see.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review of Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella (Stark House, 2010)

It’s 1973 and John Albano is barely scraping by driving for a local car service having lost his union-card construction job after an altercation with the foreman. Albano has a good heart, but has a habit of getting into trouble with his fists. A run in with a corrupt police officer leads to an offer of work from the mob - shuttling porn films to underground cinemas and collecting the takings. It’s less than ideal, but he has an ex-wife and kid to support and he needs the money. His new side-job, however, has placed him in the crosshairs of a converging set of forces: anti-corruption cops seeking to purge their own, the FBI seeking to take down the mob, his ex-wife and her other ex-husband who’d like to get their hands on a weekend of takings, the deranged cop ousted from the force due to the earlier run-in, and a low level mobster feeling threatened by the new guy. Every which way he turns trouble lurks.

Johnny Porno is an ambitious novel, telling a quite complex story from the multiple perspectives of a fairly large cast. That it hangs together without becoming incoherent or the reader getting lost is testament to Stella’s skill as a writer. And whilst relatively slow at the start, as various characters and subplots are set in place, the story gently and insistently tugs the reader along. By the end, it is cantering having turned into a real page-turner. Interestingly, nearly every single scene could be published as a standalone piece of flash fiction. Whilst the plotting is very good, creating a believable story and recreating the sense of place and social relations of 1973 New York, where the novel excels is with respect to characterization and the various social interactions. All of Stella’s characters are fully realised with clearly defined personalities, traits, and motivations. Few are pleasant company, but all are vividly portrayed with a fine eye for social realism. How they interact is very well done, especially the dialogue which is excellent: reading the conversations feels as if you’re eavesdropping. There are a number of references to George V Higgins in the book and Stella is a worthy successor. In short, Johnny Porno was an engrossing read.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Title advice needed

I've been trying to think of a different title for the short story collection I've been putting together. I need help. Here's the backcover blurb.

Jimmy Kiley is a keen amateur movie maker. He’s also the ruthless criminal boss of the north side of the city. When enforcing his own brand of law, he sees no reason why he shouldn’t mix business with pleasure. His kick is to provide a private viewing of his last venture to the star of the next. And his reluctant stars are only ever one hit wonders.

I've been uncomfortable with the working title of 'Snuff Movies' for some time due to its connotations of sexual violence (the book contains none). The advice of a good friend is find another title pronto. That leaves me with the problem of identifying a new title. I've been trying to play around with puns of movie-making and death. The cover designer, JT Lindroos, has thrown in a couple of good ones. Here's the three on the short list:

Final Frames
Killer Reels
Reel Deaths

So, here's the question. Which one of those three would you go for, or do you have another good suggestion? All help gratefully received.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

I finished the excellent Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella yesterday morning - 1973, Mob, rackets, bad cops, a mostly good guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, brilliant dialogue and well plotted. I made a start last night on Craig Johnson's The Cold Dish set in Wyoming, the first in the Sheriff Longmire series. So far very, very good - Tom Franklin meets CJ Box. Wonderful prose. I anticipate that I'll be reading the series.

My posts this week:
Zoo Stories
Review of Hill Country by R. Thomas Brown
Ireland Inc needs to work out its position re. the Irish diaspora
Review of Death in the City of Light by David King
First draft: Snuff Movies
Review of A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Shhhhh ... Sugar

The two boys walked around the shop for a second time. Both aged ten, they were addicted to football stickers. The few they were missing had to be in the box on the counter.

They conferred on the pavement.

‘Here’s the plan,’ Jack said. ‘You distract the shopkeeper by asking about an action figure, I’ll swipe the cards and walk out. You then follow. Okay?’


When the old man reached up to retrieve the toy, Jack swiped the box. He was met at the door by a fierce looking woman.

‘Shhhhh ... Sugar.’

‘Your first thought was right, sonny.’

A drabble is a story of exactly one hundred words.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Review of A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore (Orbit, 2006)

Charlie Asher is a beta-male who runs a second hand thrift store in San Francisco which he inherited from his father. He can’t quite believe that he’s managed to snag and marry Rachel, a smart, beautiful woman, and is even more amazed to find himself the father of Sophie. Sophie’s birth, however, is tainted with tragedy when Rachel dies of post-natal complications. What’s more, Charlie can see the death merchant sent to collect her soul, which is a shock to both of them. In addition to running the store and bringing up Sophie, it seems that Charlie is destined to collect the souls of those dying and to pass them onto the soulless. However, he seems to have more powers than the other death merchants, able to actually cause death; in fact, he might not be one of death’s helpers at all, but actually Death. To make life even more interesting, dark forces are gathering beneath the city, taking their chances to snatch waylaid souls in order to grow their strength so that they might rise up and cast the world into darkness. Taking them on seems more suited to the alpha-women in his life, than his beta-male persona, but Asher is nothing if not a trier. If the world only knew what was happening it would be suing for peace.

I loved this book. It was inventive, clever, laugh-out-loud witty, and well told. The main trick to comic noir fantasy is to create a fully believable world that the reader can inhabit despite its oddities. Moore does an excellent job of this, placing the reader in the geography of San Francisco, the world of Charlie Asher and the ‘death merchants’, and the underworld of the Morrigan. The contextualisation concerning beta-males and soul collecting is nicely woven into the narrative. The characterisation, in particular, was very nicely done with each character well-penned, distinct and fully fleshed out. The plot is well developed and engaging, tugging the reader relentlessly along, although the timing element was sometimes a little clunky in the transitions as the story jumped forward a year or more at a time. The mark of a really good book is that you’re disappointed when it ends. I was quite miffed when I turned the last page of A Dirty Job - the story had come to its natural end, but I was definitely left wanting more. The book is already on its way to my nephew, who I know will love it, and Moore’s other books are firmly on my radar. Expect a review of another of his stories by the end of the year.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

First draft: Snuff Movies

Last night I finished the first draft of a short story collection, provisionally titled 'Snuff Movies'. I never thought I'd ever write a book with that title, but there we go. Here's the working blurb:

Jimmy Kiley is a keen amateur movie maker. He’s also the ruthless criminal boss of the north side of the city. He sees no reason why he shouldn’t mix business with pleasure. His kick is to provide a private viewing of his last venture to the star of the next. And his reluctant stars are only ever one hit wonders.

The project started life as a single piece of flash fiction (King Canute) focused on a fairly simple premise — an impending murder victim would be shown a video of the death of the previous victim and also get a sense of the movie in which he or she was about to star. As I drafted the story, I sensed that there was potential for a series of interlinked flash fiction stories. And so I've drafted another eleven stories (five of which have been recently published on flash fiction sites).

Writing the stories has been an interesting experience as I've been both fascinated and deplored by Jimmy Kiley’s ruthless imagination and his inventive means for killing his hapless victims (where he gets his ideas from I don't really want to think about). I should note that none of the stories involve any sexual violence - they're more gangland hits with cameras.

Now I'm done, I'm wondering what to do with the collection? I was thinking of submitting to a couple of e-presses, but their submissions are closed. I'll have a think about it. Suggestions welcome (and I'm also open to suggestions for an alternative title). Next step, I think, is to contact the editors of the various e-zines which published the first five stories. One way or another, I'll try to get the collection to a virtual bookshelf at some point.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review of Death in the City of Light by David King (Sphere, 2011)

Death in the City of Light traces the case and trial against Dr Marcel Petiot, suspected of killing between 20 and over 100 victims during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and possibly more in the twenty years previously. Petiot is first suspected when various bits of bodies are found in a chic Right Bank house which he owns. Before he can be apprehended he disappears. Assigned to the case is detective Georges Massu, one of the two detectives on which Georges Simonen based Inspector Maigret. The investigation for the French police is not easy. The city is occupied by the Nazis and the Gestapo is hardly cooperative. Petiot is a complex character - he’s spent time in mental institutions, he’s been a town mayor, he’s a successful doctor, and he’s been held for months by the Gestapo, suspected of running a resistance escape route, before being released for a large payoff. He is also incredibly wealthy. To compound issues, Petiot is eventually apprehended after the fall of Paris, when he is working for a communist resistance group. Massu and the entire investigating team have been dismissed for being collaborators. Moreover, Petiot does not deny killing some of the victims found in his house, arguing that they were enemies of the state and he was performing a patriotic act of war as part of the resistance. The trial that followed was a farce, with Petiot using his quick wit to make a mockery of the prosecuting team and the judge.

The book is a fairly pedestrian affair, setting out the main features of the case, the investigation and the trial. Despite having access for the first time to the classified French files, it is unclear what new insights King brings to the story. And despite the focus on Petiot, he remains somewhat an enigma as there are still so many holes to his biography and very little concerning his motives, other than broad speculation. The narrative also suffers from some odd asides. For example, the material on Sartre, Camus, Picasso and other celebrity artists, whilst interesting, is totally redundant to the story. If the idea was to give an insight into Paris during the occupation, it would have been much more useful to provide accounts of everyday lives, or given the claims in the trial, the organisation and activities of the resistance. We are given neither. In many ways the book raises more questions than it answers, and some of the answers that are given are unsatisfactory. For example, at the end of the book, the author claims to know how the victims were killed (a fact never established during the investigation or trial), drawing on an obscure book that recounts the tale of a survivor. The problem is, whilst the hypothesis is plausible, the scenario cannot be survived! Overall, an interesting topic dealt with in a mundane, often dry, fashion.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Review of Hill Country by R Thomas Brown (Snubnose Press, 2012)

Gabe Hill is the white sheep of the family. Living in a small town north of San Antonio, he generally makes a nuisance of himself blocking the plans to expand development. He arrives home one night to find a mutilated corpse on the front porch and bizarre animal sacrifices in the woods behind his house. The next day goes from bad to worse when associates of his brother turn up demanding the money they claim his now dead brother owes them. Mike has always run with the wrong crowd, but it seems that shortly before he died he wanted to make amends. That involved secretly bequeathing hundreds of thousands of dollars to his brother. It was so secret that he failed to tell Gabe. And if Gabe can’t track it down then he’s going to pay the same price as his brother. To add to his woes, several parties are looking for stash, and they all expect Gabe to make them rich. The only condition Gabe has set himself is that he’s not going to run and hide.

I love these kind of books - noir capers. The material is dark and the pace relentless. Brown does an admirable job of spinning out a fast twisting yarn in taut prose shorn of all flab. Whilst Gabe remains a constant, there is an endless procession of characters, some of whom last barely a couple of pages before they’re dispatched. It takes a keen eye to keep up and I don’t mind admitting I had to skip back a few pages on occasion to remind myself who was who and how they were connected into the story. This probably says more about me - and reading when very tired - than Brown, who manages to keep the swirl of interconnected storylines all pulling in the right direction. It is fair to say, however, that the storytelling does sacrifice in-depth characterisation and contextualisation for pace and action, but Brown generally provides enough that the essence of the principle characters is evident. At times the shearing is a little too brutal and a little more fleshing out would have been useful, but that might have worked to make the text a little uneven in places. Regardless, Hill Country rattles along at an electric, entertaining pace and I enjoyed the ride. The thread and resolution with Abby was particularly nicely done.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Zoo stories

It took the Easter weekend, but I finally worked my way through the various zoo stories submitted to Patti Abbott's flash fiction challenge (links below). My own story was The Snake House. Check them out for some wild, tasty bite-sized trips to the zoo.

Patti Abbott - At large in the monkey house

Al Tucher - The price of admission

Cullen Gallagher - Man vs. beast at high noon

Fleur Bradley - Packing

K.A. Laity - Zoo Story

Thomas Pluck - The ten thousand pound banana

John Norris - The dream of a Golden Mantled Tamarin

Todd Mason - Zoo Day

Loren Eaton - Special exhibit

John Weagly - Friday night at Coldsmith’s farm

Sandra Seamans - Zooz

Kathleen Ryan - Feeding time at the zoo

Yvette Banek - Down to the zoo and back again

William Morgan - Frisky Fred

Greg Rossi - A steaming pile of humanity

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

Another week where the academic blogging equalled the crime blogging. It's been pretty busy all round. Little did I know that expressing my frustration at government spin about the numbers liable for household charge would spin-off into a little media duster. Within half an hour of posting I had RTE on the phone and I was interviewed the following morning on Morning Ireland. I did a couple other radio interviews on Monday and Tuesday and also spoke to a couple of print journalists about a different story. Also had one opinion piece and one letter in the Irish Times. The plan this week is to keep my head down and catch up on some reading. So far this weekend I've already read Christopher Moore's excellent A Dirty Job and am three-quarters through Hill Country by R. Thomas Brown. Still undecided what to pull off the pile next, but probably Edge of Dark Water by Joe Lansdale. Expect at least three reviews this week!

My posts this week
Household charge numbers
The Snake House
New mapping tool - Vacant Ireland
If the bulk of housing vacancy is not unfinished estates and holiday homes, what is it?
March reads
MyPlan goes live
Do we really need to construct more commercial property?
Target practice
Review of White Heat by M.J. McGrath
You can practically taste the pong

Saturday, April 7, 2012

You can practically taste the pong

‘You have to do something,’ the woman said. ‘It’s disgusting.’

‘What exactly do you think I should do?’

‘Close them down. Or at least ask them to clean the place up. You’re the environmental health officer, you tell me.’

‘It’s a farm, Mrs Doyle. You’re living in the countryside. Farms smell of ... of farms.’

‘Well, it’s unhygienic. You can practically taste the pong. My washing reeks of it. We didn’t pay a fortune to live here for the place to be smelling like a pig sty.’

‘You can’t make animals wear deodorant.’

‘It’s uncivilised.’

‘It’s nature.’

‘Well it stinks.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Review of White Heat by M.J. McGrath (Mantle, 2011)

Edie Kiglatuk is a guide, hunter and school teacher who lives in the small settlement of Autisaq at the southern tip of Ellesmere Island, high above the Arctic Circle. Disaster strikes when she takes two white folk out on a hunting expedition to Craig Island; one of them is shot and dies. The incident is hushed up and classed as an accident by the tribal elders not wanting to hurt the small tourist trade. A short time later her former husband and step-son take out a second party who are seeking the remains of the legendary explorer, Sir James Fairfax. Her step-son returns half-delirious and his charge has disappeared swallowed up by an icy blizzard. The next morning he is found dead having seemingly taken his own life. The tribal elders are keen to record the missing man as an accidental death and the son as suicide. Edie is unwilling to accept the verdict and starts to investigative his demise and the disappearance of the supposed heritage hunter. Nobody, however, seems keen on her poking around for answers.

As debut crime novels goes, White Heat couldn’t be much better. It has everything a good crime novel should have: strong plot, excellent characterization, vivid sense of place, a dollop full of history, culture and social politics, and a swirl of conspiracy. The book doesn’t simply describe the world of Edie Kiglatuk - the small, tight knit community and the icy, harsh landscape - but places the reader into it. Edie is a wonderful creation - a headstrong woman who rails against custom and tradition at the same time as she tries to maintain them in the face of encroachment by the ‘white world’. The other characters, with their various traits and foibles, are also well penned. The plot is engaging and unfolds at a nice pace and manages to remain coherent to the end without falling apart or being overly reliant on coincidence. Where the book really shone was in the portrayal of the Inuit life and the rendering of the icy, harsh but beautiful landscape. Not only was I thoroughly entertained but I learned a fair bit about the realities and social politics of Arctic living. I’ve already recommended the book to friends and I’m hoping that there are more Edie stories in the pipeline.

Target Practice

The last couple of weeks have been a bit of a blur, first working on the census, then doing media work in relation to it and also the household charge. I completely missed that one of my Jimmy Kiley stories had been published on Near to the Knuckle. Target Practice. Head over there and check it out.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

March reads

March was a good month of reading. My book of the month was Gerard Brennan's The Point. A cracking good read.

Death on the Marias by Adrian Magson ***.5
The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson by Douglas Lindsay ****.5
The Imitation of Patsy Burke by John J Gaynard ****
Kiss Me Quick by Danny Miller ***
Choke on Your Lies by Anthony Neil Smith ****
Manchester 6 by Col Bury ***.5
Star Island by Carl Hiassen ***
The Point by Gerard Brennan *****
Tollesbury Times Forever by Stuart Aylis ***.5
The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths ***
Incompetence by Rob Grant ***

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Snake House

This is my entry into Patti Abbott's flash fiction challenge, 'A Day at the Zoo'. Another episode of Jimmy Kiley's movie making.

The scrawny kid couldn’t been more than nineteen years old. His feet were barely scraping the ground, though they were cycling fast, looking for purchase. Two hard, muscled men each had a hand wedged under an armpit, marching him along the path.

‘I never did it, Mr Kiley. I swear. You know me. I’d never do anything that might upset you.’

‘Reggie caught you red-handed, you little bollix,’ Jimmy Kiley said, walking alongside, staring across the lake through the gloom. They’d already been through this conversation twice.

A troop of monkeys on the far side of the still, dark water were whooping up a storm, filling the night air with cries of ‘ah-ah, ah-ah’ and ‘oh-ah, oh-ah’.

‘It was a misunderstanding. Look, you can have the money. Shit, you can even have the drugs, but look, leave the face alone, okay? Okay, Mr Kiley?’

‘You were dealing on my patch, Jason. Taking away trade that was rightfully mine.’

‘Look, I said I was sorry.’ The young man was starting to get desperate. He was being escorted through the city zoo at gone midnight by a man with a well earned reputation for violent enforcement. And if the rumours were to be believed, a lot more besides.

He’d been snatched whilst walking home from the pub, bundled into a car and driven to the Phoenix Park, a massive expanse in the middle of the city. They’d parked near the entrance to the zoo and had forced entry into the complex by over-powering the two hapless security guards, one of whom had been beaten half-senseless. Both had been tied up; the conscious one warned in very graphic terms as to his fate should he work his way free and call the police, whose national headquarters were visible just a couple of hundred metres away.

‘ I’m sure we can come to some agreement. I can work for you. I’ve got contacts; got my own regulars. I can expand. I could be useful to you.’

‘You’re going to be useful for me right now.’

‘What? How?’ The youth couldn’t keep the fear out of his voice. ‘Please, Mr Kiley.’

A long, high pitched howl floated across the lake.

‘I make movies, Jason.’ He raised his right hand, revealing a small video camera. ‘I guess you could call them thrillers. Or live-action horror. I don’t know, I guess it’s my own unique genre.’

‘Live-action horror?’ Jason’s voice had risen an octave.

‘Maybe horror’s the wrong word. There’s none of that supernatural nonsense. More like violent psychological drama. And the stars of my movies do all their stunts.’

‘Stunts?’ Jason scanned his surroundings. ‘What the fuck? You’re going to feed me the lions?’

‘Now, there’s an idea, but no.’

‘Alligators? Crocodiles? Look, Mr Kiley, I’m sure we can come to some agreement. I’d be much more use to you alive than dead.’ He struggled in the vice-like grip of Kiley’s two companions, who ignored his writhing and ineffectual kicks.

‘I doubt that Jason. I really do. You’re going to be much more use to me in how you become dead.’

They pulled to a halt in front of unlit building. As if on cue, the moon peaked out from behind a cloud to faintly illuminate the entrance.

‘The Snake House,’ the youth said, reading the sign.

‘We’ll see how you get on amongst your own kind.’

‘Mr Kiley, please. I’ll do anything you want.’

‘You’re about to do exactly what I want. The way I like to direct things is to show the present star how the last performed; let them know what’s expected.’ Kiley lifted up the camera and pulled out the small screen at the back.

‘Oh fuck. Oh Jesus. Please, Mr Kiley. I have my whole life ahead of me.’

Kiley sniffed, then glanced down at the small puddle at Jason’s feet. ‘It would have been better if you could have saved that for the movie. Never mind. The last star was a journalist.’

The screen flickered into life showing an over-weight middle-aged man fixed to a large wooden cross.

‘Couldn’t keep his nose out of my affairs; heard stories that I’d been torturing people. I guess you could call crucifixion torture. He seemed to suffer a lot in any case. Took nearly two fucking days to die.’

Jason shifted his horrified gaze from the screen to Kiley.

‘You’re mad! You’ve actually lost plot like that nutter in Apocalypse Now. Kurtz. Colonel Kurtz.’

‘I’ll take that as a complement,’ Kiley said. ‘Marlon Brando has long been one of my heroes. You’ll like this bit.’

The camera zoomed in on the man’s face, pulled in a grimace, his eyes closed, bubbles of spittle forming at the corners of his mouth. His eyes suddenly popped open and bulged, the whites crazed red, his mouth widened but no sound came out.

‘You have to put the nails in through the wrists, not the palms, did you know that? Palms can’t support the weight; the nails just rip through the hand. You also have to break the poor bastard’s legs otherwise it can take a week or more for him to die. In the end your arms and legs can’t support your torso and you sag forward and slowly asphyxiate. Amazing what you can learn on the internet. This fat fucker was all flab; no strength to support himself. Cried like a baby when I broke his legs.’

Kiley closed the viewing screen. ‘And so to you. We thought we’d see how you got on amongst a pit of dangerous snakes; that’s their collective name by the way - a pit of snakes. Lions have to be starving or angry to attack a human. They’re too well fed in this place to keep them docile. Snakes, however, snakes attack by instinct; best form of defence. Especially in a confined space. Reggie, get the door.’

One of the muscled men let go of Jason, the other gripping him more firmly. He pulled a short crowbar from his belt and set to work on the door. After half a minute of wrestling and cursing it popped open, closely followed by the quiet beeping of an alarm.

‘Fuck!’ Kiley muttered. ‘Come-on, get him inside.’

The four men entered the dark snake house. Kiley found the light switches and room flickered into light. A wide central corridor progressed between two banks of large windows. Kiley grabbed the crowbar from Reggie and moved to a door on the right leading in behind the pens. Ten seconds later he had it open.

‘Take him to the far end,’ he instructed Reggie. ‘Then on the way back open all the doors to the pens.’

Reggie pushed Jason into the narrow corridor forced him to the far end.

‘Don’t even think about making a run for it,’ Kiley said, pointing the video camera and a handgun at the distressed teenager.

Reggie made it back to his boss and slipped out into the atrium. At first nothing happened, then gradually a handful of snakes emerged from their pens, slithering across the floor, differing in colour, length, thickness and speed.

Kiley could just about hear Jason muttering a mantra as he tried to shrink in on himself. ‘Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit ...’

In the distance the whoop of an approaching police siren grew stronger. For the next two minutes, the snakes balefully eyed each other whilst exploring the new space. Kiley had all but closed the door, leaving a crack just wide enough to point the camera. Jason was shaking with fear, rooted to the spot, too petrified to make a dash for the door.

‘Boss, we need to go,’ the other muscled man said. ‘The shades are here.’

‘Just a minute.’

A thick, strongly patterned King Cobra had worked its way to the cowering youth and lifted its hooded head two feet clear of the ground, swaying gently left and right.


‘I said just a minute.’

‘You don’t have a fucking minute.’

Kiley turned his head to see two guards arriving at the front entrance. ‘Fuck!’

He glanced back into the room. Jason was folded over. Closing over the door he dashed out into the fresh night air, brandishing the gun. The unarmed guards reeled back. Kiley closed the gap between them, smashing the butt of the gun down on one of their heads, sending the man sprawling to the ground. The other retreated out of reach.

Rather than pursue him, Kiley set off at a canter through the zoo, his two men in tow. The unhurt guard started to follow then stopped, heading back to help his colleague.

Kiley had all but forgotten about the guards. All he wanted to know was whether the cobra had struck. Not only would the movie be ruined if he’d missed it, but the young drug dealer was now in the possession of way too much information. He needed to watch the tape back, but first he had to find a safe way out of the zoo.

Off to their right the dark shape of an elephant lumbered across its enclosure. Away to their left the monkeys had started to chant again, this time joined by a menagerie of other cries. In the distance a drove of pigs whooped, the sky tinged with blue flashing lights.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Lazy sunday service

As per post on Friday, it's been a heck of a week. Half my posts ended up being non-crime fiction related. In the end, our work was covered by 15 articles in national newspapers and I did two radio interviews, which was great for the team. The embedding of some of interactive graphing modules straight into Irish Times articles was particularly neat.

Posts this week
Shots of noir
Independent planning reviews
Laughter shack
Review of Death on the Marias by Adrian Magson
Data visualisation of Census 2011
Census 2011: Housing stock and vacancy
Census 2011: population change
Time flies by when you're lost in data
Review of The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson by Douglas Lindsay
Housing vacancy at the new Small Area level
Independent planning reviews: a planner's response to DECLG claims this week
Empty promises