Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review of The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay (Pan, 2013)

Calum MacLean works as a freelance hitman in Glasgow’s underground.  Thoughtful and careful he’s worked out how to operate efficiently, effectively and below the radar.  When Frank MacLeod, the resident gun for Peter Jamieson, needs a hip replacement, MacLean is the obvious person to fill his shoes.  His first job is to dispose of Lewis Winter, a drug dealer who is expanding his operation into Jamieson’s territory with the help of someone else.  A message needs to be sent and MacLean is the man to do it.

I’ve read a number of positive reviews of The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter so I thought I’d give it a go.  The story focuses on MacLean’s life as a hitman, setting out his observations as to what makes a successful career, his worries about being drawn into an organisation rather than operating as a freelance, and the lead up and aftermath of killing Lewis Winter.  The tale has its moments and the almost documentary style narrative is an interesting approach.  However, sometimes a book clicks for a reader and other times it doesn’t and I never really warmed to the story.  Mackay’s writing voice felt too detached, there was no sense of place and story could have been happening anywhere, and I never built an emotional connection to the characters or the tale.  As a consequence, although the book has it merits it unfortunately left me a little cold. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Review of Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013)

1941 and John Holderness’ mother is killed in the blitz.  With his father serving in the army he goes to live with his Granddad, Abner Riley, a safe-cracker, and his partner, Merle, an occasional prostitute.  Holderness is bright and an avid reader and as an apprentice to his grandfather discovers all the tricks to breaking and entering.  In Germany, as the Russians near Berlin, Nell Burkhardt is sent by her parents to her stay with her uncle.  As the American’s arrive she drifts to Bergen-Belson and using her gift for languages does her best to help those interned there.  Shortly after V-Day Holderness is drafted into the RAF.  His quick wit and insolence bring him to the attention of Lt. Colonel Burne-Jones of military intelligence and he’s packed off to Cambridge to learn German and Russian.  Holderness has a gift for words and appetite for learning about the world.  Once trained he’s shipped off to Hamburg to try and spot Nazis who have adopted new identities.  Then in 1947 he’s transferred to Berlin.  There he meets and falls in love with Nell and uses his criminal skills to become active in the black market, hooking up with a US Army captain and three British soldiers to sell knocked-off army supplies.  Their activities escalate when they start supplying a Russian NVKD major with goods, using a long forgotten tunnel beneath the city.  It’s a tunnel that Holderness will return to when he’s asked to extract an elderly woman from East Berlin in 1963.

The first third of Then We Take Berlin is a wonderful read.  John Lawton provides an engaging introduction to John Holderness early years growing up in East London during the war, that of Nell’s in the last days of the war in Germany, and Holderness’ recruitment into military intelligence.  The characterisation is keenly observed and there’s a strong sense of place and context.  In the middle third of the book the narrative starts to become more bitty with many short sections charting Holderness’ time in Hamburg and then Berlin as he becomes involved in the black market and starts a relationship with Nell.  The final third moves the story through the 1950s up to 1963 and Kennedy’s visit to Berlin, and Holderness’ attempt to extract someone from East Berlin.  Here, the narrative is a little sketchy, Nell largely disappears from view, and it’s really not clear what Holderness’ motivations are.  There is an odd and confusing timeline shift, with some scenes from 1955 inserted between the transition from 1948 to 1952 for no apparent reason, but the most disappointing aspect is the ending.  The story just stops.  It feels as if at least twenty odd pages are missing.  The novel as a whole reads as if Lawton wasn’t sure where to take it, or quite how to deal with the twenty year span of time.  This was a shame as the start was excellent and Holderness and Nell are attractive creations.  It’ll be interesting to see how Lawton develops the series.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm heading to China in December and yesterday I picked up the books I'd ordered for the trip.  Qiu Xialong's A Loyal Character Dancer, Diane Wei Liang's The Eye of Jade, and Lisa Brackmann's Rock, Paper, Tiger.  I'm looking forward both to the trip and the books.  I've not visited China before, so it should be an interesting adventure.

My posts this week
It's a long way to Tipperary
Review of Jade Lady Burning by Martin Limon
Crime Pays
Jack Irish: Bad Debts

Saturday, October 26, 2013

It’s a long way to Tipperary

‘The worst thing about being alive is knowing that you are going to die.’

‘Cheer up, Henry.  It may never happen.’

‘But that’s the point.  It is going to happen.  At some point it all ends.  You’re here, then you’re gone.’

‘That’s the deal.  You live, you die.  You make the best of it whilst alive.’

‘But it’s all for nothing.’

‘I wouldn’t call this nothing.’  George tapped the dashboard of the BMW.

‘It’s just a materialistic distraction on the path to your inevitable doom.’

‘If you don’t lighten up, Henry, you’re gonna be dead before we get to Tipperary.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review of Jade Lady Burning by Martin Limon (1991, Soho Crime)

South Korea in the 1970s, the war is almost over for twenty years, but there is still a large US Military presence in a country developing rapidly.  George Sueno and Ernie Bascom work for the Military Police of the US 8th Army, mostly trawling the bars of Itaewon, the red-light district frequented by US military personnel, and trying to keep the thriving black market of military supplies in check.  When Pak Ok-Suk, a young Korean woman is found brutally murdered in her apartment, the gaze of suspicion falls upon her young GI boyfriend.  Under pressure to wrap the case up quickly, the man is arrested and handed over to the Korean police.  Sueno and Bascom, however, are not convinced of the man’s guilt, and despite warnings to drop the case, continue to investigate, placing themselves in ever more danger.

The interesting thing about Jade Lady Burning is Limon populates the story with unlikeable people doing unlikeable things in unlikeable places and yet has produced a very likeable tale.  Sueno and Bascom are rough around the edges military police officers who drink too much, party with prostitutes in Itaewon, the red-light district of Seoul, and turn a blind-eye to some black market activity.  The tale works well for three reasons.  First, Limon tells the story at face value: he doesn’t romanticise or idealise or sanitize the Itaewon underworld, nor does he portray Sueno and Bascom as likeable rogues.  Instead, the tale is told with gritty realism.  Second, the story is well contextualised with respect to Korean society after the war and the relationship with the US military and its operations.  Third, there is a compelling plot - the investigation into the death of a young Korean woman and the arrest of a young GI - which builds to a nice denouement.  Overall, an engaging and entertaining slice of social realism.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Crime Pays: Free all-day online TV workshop with Bruen, Casey, Hughes and O'Connor

On October 30th a WritersWebTV will broadcast an online workshop on all aspects of crime fiction with best-selling crime authors Ken Bruen, Jane Casey, Declan Hughes and Niamh O’Connor.  The workshop will run from 10am to 4pm and will be streamed live from a multi-camera broadcast studio in Dublin.  Viewers will be able to interact with those in studio to help them develop their skills.

Multi-award-winning Ken Bruen - the author of the Jack Taylor series which has become a TV hit starring Iain Glen – will talk through writing great hook-lines and how to develop characters across a series. Jane Casey, author of the Maeve Kerrigan series of crime novels will guide participants through the basics of narrative and plot. Declan Hughes - author of the Ed Loy PI series - rigorously plans his writing and he’ll be giving his insights on how to plan for your novel while being open to new sources of inspiration. Niamh O’Connor, one of Ireland’s leading crime journalists, will lead us through the research process and crack the code of juggling family, writing and a day-job.

WritersWebTV has developed a world-first innovation in online education for writers by providing livestreamed interactive workshops to a global audience, featuring Irish and international best-selling writers and industry professionals.  The authors will interact with an in-studio audience of aspiring writers, who present their work for critique. Online viewers can communicate with those in the studio using Twitter, Facebook or email. They can ask a question, take part in a workshop exercise, comment online and benefit from on-screen feedback from the authors in-studio.

Led by experienced workshop facilitator Vanessa O’Loughlin, founder of, the panel will consider the key elements of fiction writing and furnish viewers with tips, advice and actionable insights to help them improve their writing and get it on the path to publication.

Sounds like it will be an interesting set of sessions and worth tuning in for.  More info can be found on the WritersWebTv site.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Jack Irish: Bad Debts

Got round to watching Jack Irish: Bad Debts last night.  It was a little bitty at first as it tried to put in place a lot of back story quite quickly, but then settled down into a recognisable version of Peter Temple's novel of the same name.  It perhaps had too many short scenes, a function of trying to work in all facets of Jack's life as well as the main plot, and would have probably benefitted from being half an hour longer, or two one hour episodes.  Nevertheless, it was a very enjoyable, with an excellent cast and strong chemistry amongst the actors, especially Guy Pearce and Marta Dusseldorp.  Recommended viewing.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

The end is in sight for the present academic book I'm writing.  I have first drafts of ten chapters, minus their conclusion sections.  Once I've tidied them up that just leaves the final, conclusion chapter.  And to go through and edit, re-jig and revise the whole script.  I feel more confident now that I should make the end of January submission date, despite being swamped with other work.  We'll see. 

My posts this week

Wayward salmon
Review of Hour of the Cat by Peter Quinn
Totally capivating
Review of The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Wayward salmon

Aoife glanced over at the empty armchair.  In her mind’s eye her granny raised her eyebrows: ‘I told you so.’

‘Is that President Kennedy?’  Marie asked.

She turned attention back to the pile of photographs. 

A woman and a man were dancing in front of a crowd of onlookers.

‘Yes.’  She flipped the photo to the bottom of the pile.

‘And that’s John Lennon.’ She shuffled through the collection.  ‘George Best.  Elvis Presley.  James Dean.’

‘So her tall stories were true?’

‘Seems so.’

‘But what was she doing living here?’

‘She said, “Even wayward Irish salmon return home to die”.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Review of The Hour of the Cat by Peter Quinn (Duckworth Overlook, 2006)

June 1938 and Germany seems poised to invade Czechoslovakia, the French and British trying to find a path of appeasement.  In Berlin, Colonel Oster tries to persuade his boss, Admiral Canaris, that a military coup is the only way to deal with Hitler and the Nazis, but the head of Military Intelligence prevaricates, despite the rumour circulating about war and eugenics programmes.  In New York, veteran of the trenches, Fintan Dunne, has left the police to ply his trade as a gumshoe.  He accepts a job to investigate the supposed framing of a Cuban refugee for murder; a case that nobody seems happy he’s pursuing.  The case proves more complex and dangerous than he anticipates, tainted by police corruption, politics, and the long shadow of events in Germany.  But Dunne isn’t a quitter, despite the risks and consequences.

The strength of The Hour of the Cat is its plot, characters, and historical contextualisation and detail.  The story is an expansive, complex but intricately plotted tale that blends a traditional style private investigator tale with national and international politics.  There are numerous interlinked subplots that mix fictional and real-life characters and are contextualised within the historical record of the time, such as the eugenics movement on both sides of the Atlantic, the expressions of Nazism in the US, the neutrality position of many in the US, developments within Germany and plots inside its military, and even weather events.  Along with its elaborate plot are a large cast of characters, each of which is well drawn and accompanied by a back story.  The result is a compelling and fascinating tale.  Where the story is let down a little is in the telling.  The slow pacing, detailed contextualisation, and understated prose produces a rather flat narrative, with a little too much of the telling not moving the story forward, and the complexity of the story might have benefitted from losing one or two subplots.  Nevertheless, The Hour of the Cat is a clever tale that provides an interesting insight into the US life and politics just prior to the Second World War.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Totally captivating ...

I love that feeling when you're reading a novel and rolling around at the back of your mind is, 'this is brilliant.'  I'm about 150 pages into John Lawton's Then We Take Berlin and this thought has been there for quite a time now.  Totally captivating.  Hopefully a feeling that lasts until the final page.  A feeling worth sharing, I think.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Review of The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye (Headline, 2012)

August 1845, Timothy Wilde’s career as a barman in lower Manhattan is ended by a fire that decimates a district.  A couple of days later his politically connected brother, Valentine, secures him a post in the newly formed city police department.  Wilde is a reluctant police officer in a town that is teeming with crime and poverty, made worse by thousands of penniless Irish arriving to escape the great potato famine.  But he’s also a very good detective and when a young girl who is covered in blood crashes into his legs he sets about investigating her story.  What he discovers threatens the future of the force and to bring tensions in the city to boiling point.

The Gods of Gotham hits all the buttons for a successful debut novel -- colourful characters, engaging prose, a strong sense of place and time, historical interest and detail, authentic dialogue, and a page turning plot.  Faye drops the reader into mid-nineteenth century New York and its urban fabric, social life and tensions, squalor, and political shenanigans, building the story around real events that took place in the city at the time.  This world she populates with a range of well-penned characters, who speak using slang used at the time and published in George Matsell’s (the first chief of police of New York) The Secret Language of Crime published in 1859.  The tale is well plotted with plenty of intrigue, feints, and twists and turns.  The prose is lively and expressive and evocative.  Despite all the positives there are couple of detractions: at times scenes are over written, with the prose style and twists becoming a little overbearing and wearing as the story unfolded; and occassionally the details and research are writ large, when they either weren't needed or should have been more contextual than front and centre.  Nonetheless, The Gods of Gotham is an interesting, entertaining and engaging read.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

Back in Ireland after a hectic week in New York and Boston.  Normally I find more time for reading when travelling, but not on this trip.  I read just two books, both historical novels set in New York, which were very different in style but each very good.  Expect reviews of Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham (set in 1845) and Peter Quinn's The Hour of the Cat (set in 1938) in the coming week. 

My posts this week:
Review of A Private Business by Barbara Nadel
Review of Black Wattle Creek by Geoffrey McGeachin

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Dexter eased open the front door and stepped quietly into the darkened hall.

His mother appeared in the kitchen doorway, her face tired, hair tangled.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Out.’  He brushed past her and opened the fridge.

‘I’ve been worried sick.  It’s two fifteen in the morning.’

‘Is he still here?’

‘He’s in bed.’


‘Why what?’

‘Why’s he still here?  He’s a monster.’

‘He’s ... It’s ... Maybe when you’re my age you’ll understand.  Life’s all about compromises.’

‘Is that what I am?  A compromise?’  He headed empty handed to the stairs.  ‘Is that what your bruises are?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review of Black Wattle Creek by Geoffrey McGeachin (Penguin, 2012)

Ten years after starting a relationship with Rebecca in the Diggers Rest Hotel, Charlie Berlin is living in suburban Melbourne with his wife and two children, Peter and Sarah.  He’s still working as a cop, but his career is in a dead-end, he’s struggling to make ends meet, and he is still living with the demons of his time as bomber pilot and POW in a Polish camp.  When a recently bereaved widow becomes suspicious about the activities of a funeral home, Berlin agrees to investigate.  It’s immediately obvious that the director of the company has something to hide and his interest piqued, Charlie starts to poke around.  It soon becomes clear though that he’s stumbled onto something much bigger than he anticipated and he’s inadvertently put himself and his family at risk.  Rather than turning a blind eye, however, he stubbornly continues to investigate the strange goings-on at Black Wattle Creek.

Black Wattle Creek has two strong elements: the character of Charlie Berlin and his family, and the reason behind his investigation.  Berlin is interesting company, a caring family man who’s haunted by his past, and is tenacious in his pursuit of a solving a case.  When he looks into the suspicions of one of his wife’s friends about a local funeral home he has no idea what he getting himself into.  It soon becomes obvious that maybe he’d be better off keeping his nose out of other peoples’ business.  Where the story seems to become a little unstuck, however, is in its unfolding.  There were two aspects that I had a hard time buying which worked to undermine the fidelity of the tale somewhat.  The first was the strategy of those he’s investigating, who inflict savage violence on those Berlin consults rather than the man himself.  The second was Berlin being enlightened by the same people when there was really no need and then let wander free.  Nevertheless, the tale is enjoyable, mainly because Berlin is a compelling, wounded character and the pacing and prose are nicely done.  The third book in the series is due out next year and I’m looking forward to reading it in due course.

Many thanks to Geoffrey McGeachin for sending me a copy of the book, which has recently won the 2013 Ned Kelly Award for best crime novel in Australia.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review of A Private Business by Barbara Nadel (Quercus, 2012)

Recently bereaved, former foul-mouthed comedienne Maria Peters has found God, is trying to make a comeback, and is convinced that someone is stalking her.  She turns to a former cop turned private investigator, Lee Arnold, who has just hired Mumtaz Hakim as his assistant.  Lee and Mumtaz have problems of their own.  Lee’s business is struggling and his brother is an alcoholic who’s making his mother’s life difficult.  Mumtaz’s husband was recently murdered and she’s been left with a sixteen year old step-daughter and enormous debts that threaten their home.  Lee and Mumtaz take on the case, but despite close surveillance can spot no interference in Maria’s life except her own paranoia.  As that grows she is drawn closer to a born again church and becomes ever more withdrawn and skittish.  The question is whether her concerns are real or delusions?  

The real strengths of A Private Business is the characterisation, contextualisation and social interplay between characters.  Nadel has created four strong lead characters in former cop, Lee, Muslim widow, Mumtaz, divorced and world weary cop, Vi, and former alternative comedienne, Maria Peters.  The plot focuses as much on their own lives and troubles, and the various forces shaping them, as it does the investigation, and this is a definite plus rather than a distraction.  They are genuinely interesting characters with fleshed out back stories and social networks.  The story itself is relatively straightforward and its clear from very early on what is happening; it’s more a case of how it unfolds and resolves than a puzzle.  My impression on finishing the story was that it would be perfect for a television adaptation.  I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the series.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I arrived in New York on Friday morning.  My luggage seemed to get lost in the airport and popped out on the baggage carousel 20 minutes after all the others, just as I was finishing off the forms and heading into the city to buy some clothes.  Other than that, it's going well.  I managed to get to The Mysterious Bookshop on Friday afternoon.  I set a purchase limit of five books.  In the end I succumbed to seven:

The Thicket by Joe Lansdale
The Visitation by Ivy Pochoda
Rough Riders by Charlie Stella
Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton
Tapestry by J. Robert Janes
Jade Lady Burning by Martin Limon
Severance Package by Duane Swiercznski

I'm happy with this haul, though its added a couple of kilo to my suitcase.  It's a wonder I only managed to stick to seven.  It would have been a lot more if I'd browsed in earnest - these were all within a few feet of the front entrance!  I'm looking forward to reading them sometime between now and Christmas. 

My posts this week:
Pushing one's luck
Review of Pale Horses by Nate Southard
September reviews
Review of The Riot by Laura Wilson

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Pushing one’s luck

‘You really are a sour fecker, Charlie.  You take pleasure when some poor bugger fails and you begrudge anyone who has even the slightest bit of success.’

‘At least I don’t discriminate in my sourness.’

‘No, you stick the knife in and jiggle it about with equal relish, no matter who or what the circumstances.’

‘Maybe you’ve had enough to drink, Joe.’

‘Don’t try and tell me when I’ve had too much to drink, you sanctimonious bastard!’

‘Then stop spitting out insults.’

‘You deserve them, you cold hearted fecker.’

‘Careful now, Joe, don’t forget I’m vindictive and violent as well.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Review of Pale Horses by Nate Southard (Snubnose Press, 2013)

Sheriff Hal Kendrick has a secret he’s hiding from his work colleagues – he’s been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Increasingly forgetful, everyday he struggles to get by, relying on bluff and prompts to perform his duties and a GPS to travel around.  Worse still, he can barely remember the name of his wife or his life history.  His wife wants him to retire before his illness is discovered.  Hal, however, is determined to try and leave the county in a better state than when he became sheriff, or at the least solve the murder of a young woman found in a field.  Colleen Lothridge has been beaten to death with a hammer.  Part-time deputy Danny Cole went to school with Colleen and is friends with her husband, Bobby.  He’s convinced he knows the identity of the killer, a former marine suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Since returning to Indiana, Korey Hunt has been drinking, blacking out, fighting his demons and anybody who rubs him up the wrong way, and attending therapy.  All he wants is to return to a normal life, not face a life in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit.  Hal might be able to finish his career with a conviction, but it could be at the expense of rough justice.

Pale Horses is a country noir of the blackest kind, offset with strong bittersweet undertones.  The story charts the intersections of three principal characters over the course of a murder investigation: an aging sheriff with Alzheimer’s, an unbalanced deputy with a drug habit and a Christina Ricci obsession, and a former marine haunted by his time in Iraq and Afghanistan.  All three characters are very well drawn and developed as the story progresses.  In particular, Hal Kendrick is a wonderfully observed character, with Southard sympathetically charting his slow decline and increasing confusion.  There is a good sense of place and contextualisation concerning small town, rural America, and the plot is compelling, building to a violent but nicely done denouement.  In my view, it is ready made for a movie adaptation in the vein of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone (it needs an indie treatment, not a Hollywood one).  Unsettling, uncompromising, dark and bittersweet, Pale Horses is a gripping read.

I've been lucky enough to read an ARC of Pale Horses and it should be published shortly.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

September reviews

A bumper month of reading, aided by a holiday break at the beginning of the month.  My read of September was Ostland by David Thomas, which proved a thought-provoking tale.

The Riot by Laura Wilson ***.5
Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indridason ***
Dresden by Frederick Taylor ****
Ostland by David Thomas *****
All the Lonely People by Martin Edwards ***.5
Tretjak by Max Landorff ***.5
The Darkling Spy by Edward Wilson ****.5
The Good German by Joseph Kanon ****
Stettin Station by David Downing  ***.5
Echoland by Joe Joyce ***
Love Songs from a Shallow Grave by Colin Cotterill *****