Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review of Cripple Creek by James Sallis (No Exit Press, 2006)

John Turner, an ex-soldier, ex-Memphis cop, ex-con, and former therapist, has retreated into rural Tennessee where he has been persuaded to work as a deputy sheriff.  His life has found a contented rhythm with his new partner, Val Bjorn, a local legal counsel.  However, that is about to change after Don Lee, the acting sheriff, arrests a man from Memphis for speeding and threatening behaviour.  In the trunk of the car is a nylon sports bag containing 200,000 dollars.  Shortly after, the man is sprung from the police station, Don Lee brutally assaulted and left in coma.  Seeking justice, Turner heads to the city, a place that still haunts him, where he violently confronts the gang responsible, but rather than securing closure he opens up a slow burning feud that threatens his new life.

Cripple Creek is the second book in the John Turner trilogy and although best read in sequence can be read as a standalone.  The three standout qualities of Sallis writing, in general, and which are all evident in this story, are his prose, his characterisation, and his atmospherics.  Sallis is a poet and his storytelling has a wonderful cadence, his style is all tell and no show.  The reader is dropped into Turner’s world of rural America and its inhabitants, its sense of place and social life.  Sallis has a keen eye for the human condition and the ways in which life unfolds.  He paints a picture of Turner as an enigmatic man who cyclically creates moments of contentment that unravel through his own follies; a man reflexive of his own propensity to reinvent and self-destruct almost without effort.  It’s a compelling mix.  On the other hand, the plot seems merely a vehicle for these explorations, and whilst interesting has gaping holes in it, especially with respect to police procedures: Turner is seemingly inured against the legal consequences of his actions and in Cripple Creek manages to kill a couple of people without anyone else batting an eyelid or even filling out a form.  If the plot was as skilfully composed as the rest of the tale, the book would be a knockout.  As it is, it’s somewhat of a flawed diamond.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Review of The Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler (Touchstone, 2008)

When the world started to go to hell in a handbasket newly divorced Mortimer Tate headed for the hills in Tennessee and a well stocked cave.  Nine years later, after spotting three men hunting, he ventures out intent on finding out what happened to the world and his ex-wife.  What he finds is a society divided into clans and regressed into the pioneer territory of the wild west.  After being rescued from the clutches of a mad man by a clone of Buffalo Bill, Tate is directed to a Joey Armageddon’s Sassy-Go-Go bar, a kind of cross between a saloon, bordello and trading store, where he swaps some of his stockpiled goods for Armageddon dollars.  He discovers that after the apocalypse his ex-wife had become a stripper at the club and had been traded to another venue.  Using his new dollars he sets off after her with his new sidekick, navigating through a treacherous landscape where there is no law, only the vestiges of some ancient decency and the power of dollars and guns.

The Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is best taken for what it is, a slice of fun, often cartoonish and violent, apocalyptic noir.  Think of it as a summer action movie, not an art-house film.  The plot just about hangs together, although it sometimes uneven and teeters on the edge of collapse, the prose is workmanlike and the characterisation a little thin, but the pace and energy keeps the tale moving forward through a series of trials for Mortimer Tate, his sidekick, Buffalo Bill, and tag-along stripper, Sheila.  Moreover, Gischler does conjure up a reasonably coherent vision of a post-apocalyptic society that is part Mad Max and part Wild West.  Taken on those terms, the book is an entertaining and enjoyable escapist yarn.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I've just been invited to take part in CityLab in New York in October.  It's been a while since I've visited, so I'm looking forward to it.  I'll need to stock up on some New York crime fiction.  Any suggestions?

My posts this week

Review of The Maze of Cadiz by Aly Monroe
Launching oneself into the void
Review of Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
Chasing ghosts

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Chasing ghosts



‘Roll it back a bit.’

Stennings tapped at the keyboard.

‘That’s it.  From there.’

They both stared at the monitor.

‘There, did you see it?’

‘See what?’

‘The reflection in that window.’  Napier tapped the screen.

Stennings rewound the footage and played it again.


‘You think that’s him?’

‘Has to be.  Freeze it and zoom in.’


‘It’s just a blob. Like some alien.’

‘Or a ghost.’

‘How hell did he avoid all the cameras? It’s like he was never there.’

‘I bet the owner would like to know that as well.’ 

‘If he ever wakes up.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Review of Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (Canongate, 1977/2013)

Jennifer Lawson has not returned home Poppies Disco in central Glasgow.  Her patriarchal father wants her found and turns to DI Jack Laidlaw.  Laidlaw is a walking set of paradoxes, a former boxer but hater of violence, a believer in fidelity yet a serial philanderer, a pragmatic, instinctive man of action and a reflective philosopher, compassionate one minute antagonistic the next.  He tells the father to go home and wait and that he’ll look into it.  Later that morning a young woman’s body is found in a park having been raped and murdered.  Laidlaw’s nemesis, DI Milligan is assigned to lead the main investigation.  Laidlaw is given the task of skirting round the edges, looking for angles the main team might have missed.  DC Brian Harkness, a fresh detective, is assigned to help him, warned to learn from Laidlaw but not get corrupted by his unconventional ways.  Laidlaw sets off to find the killer using a mix of guile, wits and street knowledge and contacts, happy to ruffle feathers to see what emerges.  He’s soon on the killer’s trail, but so too are others hoping to get to him before Laidlaw does.

Laidlaw is the first book in what many consider a classic crime trilogy.  First published in 1977, the book set out the blueprint for a generation of Scottish crime fiction detectives, both on print and TV: independent, contrary, hard, compassionate, world-weary, committed, reflexive and with a disastrous home-life; always a gamut of paradoxical traits.  It’s easy to understand the book’s reputation.  It’s a very engaging tale spun by a wordsmith and there’s very little to fault.  The style is all tell and no show, with nice prose and excellent dialogue.  The characterisation is keenly observed, with even very minor characters vividly drawn in just a few words.  The plot has a strong hook and a nice blend of action, feints, twists and dashes of philosophical reflection.  And McIlvanney spins a strong sense of place, time and social context.  Overall, an excellent read that is as much about the human condition as it is a crime story.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Launching oneself into the void

I'm reading Cripple Creek by James Sallis at present.  He's also a poet and it shows in his writing which has a wonderful cadence and is full of atmospherics and reflexive asides.  Parts of the story you could drive a tank through, but it doesn't seem to really matter.  I was particularly taken with his description of consulting:

The business card was for a financial consultant in offices just of Monroe in Memphis.  That consultant thing had always eluded me, I could never understand it.  As society progresses, we move further and further away from those who actually do the work.  Consulting, I figured, was about as far as one could get before launching oneself into the void.

Later on the sheriff says to Turner:

"Don't know if I ever told you this before, but there's times I feel flat-out stupid around you.  We talk, and you tell me what I already know.  Which has got to be the worst kind of stupid."

Seems to me that's what consultants do - tell us what we already know.  For a fee.  The void beckons ...

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review of The Maze of Cadiz by Aly Monroe (John Murray, 2008)

September 1944, the Allies have invaded France and Peter Cotton, a freshly recruited British intelligence agent, is sent to Cadiz in Franco’s Spain.  His mission is to find out what has happened to their agent there, who had been reporting on activity in the port but has gone silent, and to then shut down the office.  Cotton arrives first in a sweltering Madrid, then journeys by train to Cadiz where he checks into a dilapidated hotel, is greeted by a local cop and a resentful vice-consulate, and discovers his quarry has been dead for some time, fished out of the sea.  He starts to tidy up the affairs of the agent and close down the office, but gets drawn into investigating the circumstances of his death, all the time shadowed by the local cop who seems to taken a special interest in Cotton and his mission.  It soon becomes apparent that the local agent was involved in more than simply tracking German supply roots.

The first of the Peter Cotton series, The Maze of Cadiz is a spy tale in the Alan Furst mode - understated realism as opposed to a capital T thriller.  Peter Cotton is a young ex-soldier sent to Cadiz on his first mission as a British agent.  He’s somewhat naive, yet oddly worldly; independent and self-sufficient but a little lost in a foreign landscape haunted by civil war politics and conscious of the larger war going on around them and their fragile diplomatic position.  Monroe does a good job of creating an atmosphere of sweltering heat, slow pace of life, and underlying political tensions and poverty, in the process evoking a well realised sense of place.  The prose is nicely written and evocative.  However, whilst the first third of the story is engaging, the unfolding of the plot is overly linear and lacks tension and intrigue, and it’s not clear why Cotton has been sent on a mission that is clearly more suited to someone with more in-field experience and knowledge of Spain, or a small team.  Moreover, the characterisation is quite thin beyond Cotton and Raminez, the local cop, who adds a bit of colour.  The result is a tale of where the reader is firmly placed in Cadiz, but does not quite fully believe what is happening there.  Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable read, due mostly to its atmospherics and prose.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I've just about had my fill of business books about big data, so I made a start into Victor Gischler's Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse last night.  It's the usual Gischler mix of mayhem, violence and rich black humour set nine years after the world imploded to leave what's left of American society regressed into a wild west civilization inhabiting a tattered modern landscape.  It's good, noirish fun so far.

My posts this week:
Review of Graveland by Alan Glynn
More for the pile
Yet both were Glasgow
Review of Dead Man's Time by Peter James
How do you tilt?
Guarantees and promises

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Guarantees and promises

‘The stupid, old bastard.’

‘He didn’t know he was going to die, did he?’

‘Of course he knew he was going to die!  We all die.  That’s life’s only guarantee.’

‘But he didn’t know he was going to die just then.’

‘So?  He promised me the house; will or no will.  He owed me that much.  I was the one that stayed when they all left to get on with their own lives; I was the one that looked after him and the house.  Now those feckers want it sold.’


‘Don’t Paul me.  It’s not you that’ll be homeless.’

A drabble is a story of exactly one hundred words.

Friday, July 19, 2013

How do you tilt?

In The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver quotes from Tommy Angelo's 'Elements of Poker' about when a player overplays and overbets their hand due to a loss of perspective, termed tilting.  It got me thinking a bit about myself, and also about fictional characters, and the ways in which I, and they, tilt in encounters.  Here's the various ways that Angelo tilted when he played.

"I knew all the different kinds.  I could do steaming tilt, simmering tilt, too loose tilt, too tight tilt, too aggressive tilt, too passive tilt, playing too high tilt, playing too long tilt, entitlement tilt, annoyed tilt, injustice tilt, frustration tilt, sloppy tilt, revenge tilt, underfunded tilt, overfunded tilt, shame tilt, distracted tilt, scared tilt, envy tilt, this-is-the-worst-pizza-I've-ever-had tilt, I-just-got-showed-a-bluff tilt, and of course, the classics: I-gotta-get-even tilt, and I-only-have-so-much-time-to-lose-this-money tilt, also known as the demolition tilt."

I know I've tilted in most, if not all of these ways, and also witnessed them in others, in meetings.  In fact, I'm sure colleagues would tell you I'm permanently tilting one way or another, tic-tacing between them seeking an even keel. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review of Dead Man’s Time by Peter James (Macmillan, 2013)

Brooklyn, 1922, and a young Gavin Daly is woken by a drunken gang of men who murder his mother and drag away his father, who is never seen again.  On the dockside, waiting to board a liner that will take Gavin and his sister, Aileen, to live in Ireland with his aunt, he is given his father’s watch with an instruction to ‘watch the numbers’ and he vows to discover what happened to his father.  Fast forward to 2013 and Daly is aged 95 and has become a rich man through the antiques trade, but has never discovered his father’s fate.  The watch is entrusted to Aileen and is locked in a safe.  When Aileen is found trussed to a radiator and tortured, her house cleared of its valuables, including her father’s watch, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace takes charge of the investigation.  Having just become a father, Grace is suffering from a ‘baby head’ and guilt at not spending as much time at home as he’d like.  Livid at the death of his sister and the loss of his father’s watch, Daly starts his own parallel investigation using his wealth and contacts in the antiques trade to try and track down the culprits.  Slowly both investigations make headway, but Daly is one step ahead and he has notions of delivering a different kind of justice to that of Grace.  In the meantime, one of Grace’s old collars, Amis Smallbone, wants to exact revenge for twelve years in prison.

It’s been quite a while since I read a Peter James novel, so I was quite happy to receive an ARC of Dead Man’s Time, the ninth in the Roy Grace series.  On the plus side, it’s an enjoyable enough read, with a fairly complex plot that weaves an interesting tale.  James clearly knows his police procedures and the cop side of the story has the feel of authenticity.  The family and criminal sides of the story, however, felt uneven and overly contrived.  The whole Amis Smallbone subplot, for example, was unconvincing.  Whereas Grace, his partner and some of his colleagues were three-dimensional and engaging, many of the characters were flat and caricaturish.  The tale is told through workmanlike prose, and despite each chapter only being a couple of pages long there were too many redundant passages and repetition.  Overall, then, a reasonably entertaining tale, with a nice twist at the end, but somewhat uneven in its telling.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Yet both were Glasgow

I'm working my way through Laidlaw by William McIlvanney at present.  There are some very nice passages in a story teeming with contrasts and incongruities, just like the city:

He felt bruised with contradictions.  Where he had been was being mocked by where he was.  Yet both were Glasgow.  He had always liked the place, but he had never been more aware of it than tonight.  Its force came to him in contradictions.  Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park.  It was the sentenious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw.  It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt.  It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.

McIvanney has an ear for dialogue and an eye for social realism and complex, layered situations and characters.  And he has me hooked into the story.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

More for the pile

I headed back to The Book Lady bookshop again on Saturday and picked up two other books: Val McDermid's Trick of the Dark and Karin Fossum's Black Seconds.  I also bought six other books last week (two novels and four academic), and two other academic books this week so far.  I have no idea when I am going to find time to read them all.  I guess I'll just keep turning the pages.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Review of Graveland by Alan Glynn (Faber, 2013)

Ellen Dorsey used to be a frontline journalist who now writes longer, investigative pieces for a monthly current affairs magazine.  When an investment banker is shot dead in Central Park, given her nearness and curiosity she heads to the scene.  The murder re-ignites her old news reporter instincts -- she’s sure this is more than a random killing and she wants to uncover and break the story.  Frank Bishop used to be an architect before the financial crash, now he’s a store manager in an ailing mall.  To add to his woes he’s becoming increasingly concerned for the safety of his daughter, Lizzie, a university student who won’t answer and return his calls.  Craig Howley is second in charge of a private equity group, Oberon Capital, and is hoping to take control once aging, patriarch, James Vaughan cedes his position due to ill-health.  Vaughan, however, has other ideas and is determined to cling on to power, or at least retain being the puppet-master.  Ellen, Frank and Craig’s lives are about to intersect, with fatal consequences.

Graveland is the third book in a loose trilogy that all feature the well connected, aging and secretive, James Vaughan and the tentacles of Oberon Capital Group, and a handful of other overlapping characters.  As with Winterland and Bloodland, Glynn has written a well plotted, nuanced and layered political/financial thriller -- this time weaving together radical politics and Wall Street greed.  And although there are several intersecting plotlines and subplots, Glynn guides the reader effortlessly through them.  The telling feels polished, the prose and narrative thoughtfully crafted, and the style is all tell and no-show.  The characterisation is nicely realised, with each of the principal characters vivid, complex and three-dimensional.  Overall, a fitting end to the trilogy, that also closes off Glynn’s first book, The Dark Fields -- an enjoyable, cerebral, contemporary thriller.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

Another sunny day in Ireland.  We've now had a whole week of them.  For the first time in a few years we're actually having summer weather.  No doubt usual business will resume shortly so I plan to spend most of the day in the garden slow roasting with my head in Aly Monroe's The Maze of Cadiz.  Unusually, I actually have three books on the go at present.  The other two are Laidlaw by William McIlvanney and The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver.  They've become my outdoor, downstair's and upstair's reads.  Expect reviews shortly.  I'm a little behind with reviewing, so when I get too hot, I might wander in and draft a couple.

My posts this week
Review of Irregulars by Kevin McCarthy
A tanuple of drabble words
Review of The Deal by Michael Clifford
Cover for The Song of the Sea
Too slow on the draw

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Too slow on the draw

‘Hey!  Hey!  What the ...’

He shot out a hand, but was too slow on the draw.

The man stepped calmly off the platform just as the train drew level with Donny.

And vanished. 

Lost to the squeal of brakes, the screams of would-be passengers, and the warm breeze barrelling down the tunnel.


Donny stared at his outstretched hand, a carriage just centimetres away, wondering at what might have been.  Could have been if he’d reacted more swiftly.

The train shuddered to a halt, the faces gazing out oblivious to the fact that they’d be stuck there for hours.

A drabble is a story of exactly one hundred words.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cover for The Song of the Sea

Having spent a bit of time reflecting on the two cover choices for the forthcoming drabble collection - The Song of the Sea - I've decided to go with the one right.  It was a tough choice, but the more crafted font is I think more representative of the nature of the stories.  Either one would have been good though.  Thanks to everyone who an expressed a view and to JT Lindroos for designing it for me.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review of The Deal by Michael Clifford (Hachette, 2013)

After ten years in Australia, Karen Riney returns to Ireland after the death of her husband.  On the rebound she ends up in Kerry with Jake, who is paying off a debt to Dublin crime boss, Pascal Nix by running a grow-house.  When the house is raided and Jake arrested, Karen heads to Dublin with the idea of using her new knowledge and Jake’s contacts to go into the grow-house business herself, with the aim of making enough money to make a fresh start.  Without the capital for set-up costs she turns to Nix, a man nobody wants to be in debt to.  As Kevin Wyman well knows; a builder who chased the bust to the bottom, borrowing money from Nix to try and keep his business float.  Nix ensures a healthy return on his investments through the services of Charlie Small, an overweight thug, and Dara Burns, a cold hearted killer for hire.  Karen has little conception of the terms of her debt, confident that she can use her business skills to make a quick profit.   But when Nix is involved there’s no such thing as easy money.

The Deal is a story about ordinary folk, down on their luck in a recession, turning to the fringes of crime to try and make a quick buck and keep their heads above water, and the criminals who exploit them ruthlessly.  It had a strong feel of social realism, as might be expected from a journalist author, and my sense was it gave a good portrayal of dark underbelly of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, much like Clifford’s excellent first book, Ghost Town.  Indeed, the story is an interesting tale and its competently told, but it felt a little flat until the last third when it picked up in pace and tension.  Likewise the characters felt somewhat two-dimensional and I never really connected with them or their troubles.  Overall, then, whilst the plot was well worked and is a timely portrait of contemporary Ireland, the telling seemed to lack bite and sparkle.  Nevertheless, I look forward to Clifford’s next offering.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A tantuple of drabble words

Back in May 2011 I took up the challenge by Oxford Dictionaries to save a word that was in danger of slipping from use and vanishing from our lexicon.  The word I chose was 'tantuple', which is a number multiplied by itself.  I've managed to use it a few times, but its not the easiest to drop into a conversation.  I can use it now as, as of Saturday, I have produced a tantuple of words from my drabbles - 100 stories each of 100 words.  Somewhat ironically, the save the words website has been closed down, so maybe there weren't that many words that needed saving after all.  As I announced a couple of weeks ago, I'm going to collect all the drabbles together into a collection - The Song of the Sea - and publish it as a free ebook later in the summer.  I'll announce my choice for the cover on Friday.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Review of Irregulars by Kevin McCarthy (New Island, 2013)

Dublin, 1922, and Sean O’Keefe has been demobbed from the Royal Irish Constabulary and has become one of the great mass of unemployed, sitting on the sidelines of the civil war raging between former comrades, the pro-treaty Free Staters and the anti-treaty Irregulars.  He spends his days drinking to forget his time in the Great War and subsequent fight for independence until he agrees to help pay off the debt his father owes to Ginny Dolan, a madam of a Monto brothel.  She wants O’Keefe to use his policing skills to find her missing son, Nicky, an idealistic teenager who acts as a runner for the Irregulars.  To aid him, she partners O’Keefe with Albert, her strong-arm protection, who has a tendency to hit first and ask questions later.  Given Nicky Dolan’s links to the Irregulars, they are not the only ones seeking the boy and his leader Felim O’Hanley.  The newly formed CID and intelligence service, staffed by battle-hardened men who will kill to maintain the fledgling new state, are hunting him down after one of their own was killed when a sting operation went wrong.  Thus ensues a game of cat and mouse as O’Keefe and Albert traipse round Dublin’s seedy underbelly seeking Dolan’s hiding place whilst avoiding the attentions of the police.

Irregulars is the second Sean O’Keefe story, set a couple of years after Peeler, during the Irish civil war.  Like Peeler, the story is multi-layered and nuanced, capturing the convoluted national politics and family allegiances of the time.  And by demobbing O’Keefe and having him search for a politically-motivated and adventure-seeking teenager, the plot allows McCarthy to portray the vast social differences between the well-to-do and the slums, as well take a relative impartial path through the politics and skirmishes between pro- and anti-treaty forces.  In so doing, he creates a very strong sense of place and time.  Indeed, the contextual history is very much front stage in the telling, with McCarthy demonstrating and imparting a detailed knowledge of Dublin and the civil war in the early 1920s.  This does work to slow the story a little, and at times veers the book towards a history lesson rather than crime tale, but it is generally fascinating stuff.  Where the telling does falter, however, is in the inclusion of a number of passages which are superfluous or overly long and little progress the story and the narrative would have benefitted from them being omitted or tightened.  This is countered by the generally strong characterisation, especially Sean O’Keefe, Nora Flynn, the agent employed to track him, and Just Albert, the brothel strong-arm, and some really wonderful dialogue.  Overall, Irregulars is a very good read, with a strong sense of place and history, excellent prose and dialogue, and an engaging, page-turning plot. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I discovered 'Ireland's smallest bookshop' yesterday in Boyle - The Book Lady.  The shop probably measured eight feet by six and was floor to ceiling books, mostly selected literary fiction.  I think it's the first bookshop I've been in that had a free section - 'books that can be picked up for three for a euro in charity shops that are unlikely to be sold and are taking up space,' as the friendly owner put it.  I picked up a copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, of which I've been dimly aware but taken no notice.  I've now discovered that it's been on the New York Times bestseller list for seven years and has over 320,000 ratings on Goodreads.  Which just goes to show how much attention I pay to bestseller lists.  Hopefully it'll be as good a read as reviews say it'll be.

My post this week:

June reviews
Review of Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett
Irish crime binge
Review of Little Criminals by Gene Kerrigan
Rock and a hard place

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Rock and a hard place

The garda held out a photograph.  ‘Would you like to tell us about this place, Darren?’

He glanced down at the photo.  It showed him exiting an apartment block.


‘Trafficking and profiting from prostitution are serious offences.  You’ll get several years in the clink.’

Darren tried to brush past the cop, but his path was blocked.

‘We know you’re just the handy man, Darren.  That Kenny H owns the brothel and several others.  We’re offering you witness protection if you’ll testify.’

‘Are you joking?  He’d kill me and my family.’

‘Those are your choices, Darren, prison, death or protection.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Review of Little Criminals by Gene Kerrigan (Vintage, 2005)

Frankie Crowe is a career criminal who dreams of moving up from the junior ranks to a high flyer.  All he needs is a lucky break and a hefty pile of cash to set himself up as a player.  Justin and Angela Kennedy appear to be his meal ticket, two Celtic Tiger cubs who have become wealthy through finance and property.  Jo-Jo Mackendrick is a gangland boss, determined to protect his position and what dirty jobs do and do not happen in the city.  Crowe feels he doesn’t need Jo-Jo’s blessing, he’s earned his right to step up to the big time.  His plan is to assemble a small group of four, kidnap one of the Kennedy’s and demand a million euro ransom.  And nothing is going to get in his way: Mackendrick, the Kennedy’s or the police.  If that means the taking of lives, then so be it.

Little Criminals is a cracking read and a lesson in how write all tell and no show, using tight, sparse, expressive prose.  There isn’t a single sentence that doesn’t propel the story forward.  Rather than following one person, Kerrigan shifts the point of view, telling different elements of the story from the perspective of a handful of characters, principally the main criminal Frankie Crowe, his reluctant sidekick, Martin Paxton, kidnap victim Angela Kennedy, and copper John Grace.  The characterisation is excellent, with each character's back story, neatly and efficiently set out, with a series of wonderful scenes and realistic dialogue.  The plot is tight and gripping.  There is no real mystery element to the story, nor unlikely coincidences or melodrama, instead it simply charts how the Crowe’s attempt at making the big time unfolds, which in and of itself is highly compelling.  The whole book is wonderfully evocative of Dublin before the crash, colliding together the worlds of criminal gangs and the corporate elite.  Overall, an excellent tale, very well told.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Irish crime binge

I'm having a bit of an Irish crime binge at present.  Yesterday I reviewed Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett.  Tomorrow I'll post a review of Little Criminals by Gene Kerrigan, followed early next week by Irregulars by Kevin McCarthy.  Hot on its heels will be Michael Clifford's The Deal and Alan Glynn's Graveland.  I bought the latter two at the weekend.  I'm not usually too fussed about covers, but I'll admit I wouldn't have picked up The Deal if it hadn't got Michael Clifford's name on it.  Just doesn't appeal to my taste.  His debut novel, Ghost Town, ensured that it reached the checkout till.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review of Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett (Bloomsbury, 2007)

Dr Otto Spethmann is a widowed psychoanalyst working in St Petersburg in 1914, a city bracing itself for an impending war with Germany, whilst also in turmoil as reactionary forces seek to foment a revolution.  Amongst his patients are Anna Petrovna, a rich heiress who is troubled by a past event, and Avrom Rozental, a chess master on the verge of a nervous breakdown who is about to take part in a tournament, whom his famous musician friend and chess rival, Kopelzon, has asked him to treat.  As a chess player, Spethmann is keen to help Rozental overcome his demons, but he’s distracted by his attraction to Anna and a murder that the police have linked to him and his daughter, Catherine.  Despite his efforts to distance himself from the case, including seeking the intervention of influential citizens such as Anna’s father, Spethmann finds himself the target of a persistent police officer who suspects him of being implicated in a revolutionary plot to kill the Tsar.  Whichever way he turns he appears to be in Zugzwang: a position in chess in which a player is obliged to move, but every move available will only make his position worse.

Zugzwang moves along at quick clip, the story laced with intrigue and twists.  The historical context of St Petersburg in 1914, and its various conspiracies and revolutionary plots, forms a nice backdrop to the story without dominating the narrative.  The characterisation is well realised, if a little clichéd at times, and whilst the writing is engaging and plot intricate, the tale felt a little over-contrived, with various, complex inter-relations between several characters and interweaving subplots.  This is partly a result of Bennett seemingly trying to position every major character in a position of Zugzwang.  One nice touch is the inclusion of a chess game (including a picture of the board, the positions of the pieces and the moves) between Spethmann and his friend, Kopelzon, that mirrors Spethmann’s movement through the plot.  Overall, an enjoyable, if melodramatic, page-turner with an interesting backdrop.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

June reviews

I read and reviewed nine books in June.  The two standout stories were Crocodile Tears by Mark O'Sullivan and Once in Another World by Brendan John Sweeney, both set in Ireland, but seventy years apart.  The latter, set in 1937, edges it as my read of the month.

Exposed by Liza Marklund ****
Countdown City by Ben Winters ***.5
Season of the Witch by Arni Thorarinsson **.5
Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath ***
Penance by Dan O'Shea ****
Roll With It by Nick Place ***.5
Screwed by Eoin Colfer ***.5
Crocodile Tears by Mark O'Sullivan ****.5
Once in Another World Brendan John Sweeney *****