Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

A few more ordered books arrived at the local bookstore. Here's the new tbr pile, minus Luke McCallin's The Divided City, which I'm halfway through. It's quite a while since I've bought a pile of books that does not contain a new-to-me author. All of these are part of series.

My posts this week
Definitely worthy of a snack
Review of Whiskey River by Loren Estleman

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Definitely worthy of a snack

Go on then. Yes, yes. Wait a minute. Where did that go? He didn’t throw it.  At least, I don’t think he did. But his hands are empty. Maybe it went over here? No, nothing but more sand. Whoa! How did it get back in his hand again? Go on then. Yes. No. I don’t care which way – I can run in circles all day. Why's he dropping it? Bloody hell, he’s given that a good boot! I gotcha, I gotcha. I can fly!

‘Great catch, Buddy!’

Definitely worthy of a snack. I’ll swap you a ball for a treat.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review of Whiskey River by Loren Estleman (Scribners, 1990)

Detroit, the late 1920s/early 1930s. The city is a melting pot of people drawn to its industrial base.  The start of the Great Depression has added a desperate edge and prohibition has led to a thriving underground scene of speakeasies and bootlegging, with gangs bringing liquor across the Detroit River from Canada or setting up their own breweries. Competition is fierce, with regular deadly fights over turf and markets, overseen by a corrupt police force as interested in kickbacks as keeping the peace. Constantine (‘Connie’) Minor is a tabloid columnist who made his name working the crime beat. He’s met and written about the city’s major criminals and has built up a level of trust with them. In particular, he has formed a bond with a young, charismatic hoodlum, Jack Dance, who invites him to take part in a whiskey run across the frozen river. Subsequently, Dance uses Minor as a go-between, swapping the journalist’s supposedly neutral position to deliver messages for an inside track on breaking stories. It’s an odd relationship, with Dance being ruthless and unpredictable, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, and Minor hiding his excesses to protect his source of exclusives. While ‘Joey the Machine’ and the Unione Siciliana seem to be playing a long game, Dance lives in the moment, taking evermore risks to take a larger share of the bootlegging business.

Whiskey River is the first novel in the Estelman’s ‘Detroit’ series, with each novel focusing on a key aspect/event in the city’s history in the twentieth century. In this outing it’s the late 1920s/early 1930s and the focus is on the operation of criminal gangs and their on-going battles with each other and the law. The story is told in the form of a testimony by Connie Minor, a syndicated tabloid columnist, at a grand-jury investigation into police corruption held in 1939. Minor’s recollection focuses mainly on the life and death of Jack Dance. Dance is a young criminal and schemer with a faulty moral compass, high ambitions, an unpredictable nature, and an inner energy that makes things happen. He has no respect for the established criminal or legal order and is prepared to take on both. Minor is drawn into Dance’s world and is trusted by him, allowing the journalist access to the life of a hoodlum. To ground the tale in the history of the city, Estelman mixes in a number of real world events including a couple of murders and political machinations. To create atmosphere, the tale is told in style of an earlier gangster movie or Raymond Chandler novel, with some nice observations, witty one-liners, and at times sparkling prose.  The result is a character-driven story of Detroit’s underbelly during prohibition, of warring criminal gangs, corrupt police, and a society reeling from the Great Depression. The only niggle is use of a narrator, which seems to put a bit of distance between the reader and the unfolding story. Otherwise, Whiskey River is a fascinating and engaging piece of historical crime fiction.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Service

I've a few books on the to-be-read pile, but none of them particularly took my fancy so I went a little crazy with book orders this past week. I picked up the first three books from the local bookshop on Friday, and also selected another while there. They are Jane Casey's After the Fire, Anthony Quinn's  Silence, Claire McGowan's A Savage Hunter, and Karin Wieland's Dietrich and Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives (which I'm presently reading). The others arrive during the week. I'll not be short of reading for a while (thankfully).

My posts this week
Review of The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
Review of The Long Firm by Jake Arnott
Improvisation and instinct

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Improvisation and instinct

‘What’s taking so long?’

‘Nothing. Just be ready to get out of here.’

The van was parked in front of the bank.

‘I don’t like it. God knows what Lonny’s likely to do.’

‘He knows what he’s doing.’

‘Yeah, right. Lonny’s all improvisation and instinct.’

A large man tumbled through the bank’s doors, dragging a middle-aged woman.  From inside came the sound of gunfire. Two more men exited wearing balaclavas.

The side-door slid open. 

‘Who’s she and where’s the money?’

‘She is the money! Well, bank manager. We’re kidnapping her.’

‘That wasn’t the plan, Lonny.’

‘Well, it is now. Go!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review of The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (2009, Pocket Books)

Moscow, 1956. Leo Demidov, former MGB officer, now heads up a homicide division. The new Soviet leader, Khrushchev, has denounced the hard-line of Stalin in a secret speech that has been widely circulated and has promised reform.  Millions have been complicit in carrying out Stalin’s purges and millions were executed and sent to gulags.  Leo has personally arrested hundreds of people, many of them guilty of little more than trying to survive a brutal regime.  Khrushchev’s speech threatens to destabilise the Soviet system and someone seems intent on exacting revenge against those in power.  Leo, his wife Raisa, and their two adopted daughters are in the firing line. Leo wishes to atone for his part in wrecking lives, but not at the expense of his family. To save them he must undertake a hazardous mission, first to the gulags of Siberia, then to revolutionary Hungary.

The Secret Speech is the second book in the Leo Demidov trilogy.  After his exploits in Child 44, Demidov is now running a homicide division.  He can’t break free of his MGB days, however.  One of those he arrested and sent to the gulags is using the ‘Khrushchev thaw’, in which the new leader seeks reform and to the hard-line actions of the State, and their early release to target those responsible for their incarceration.  Leo and his new family is top of the list for reprisals.  Smith uses this revenge premise to construct a wider political thriller in which Leo, in order to save his family, becomes an unwilling participant in a larger plot.  There’s certainly a lot going on in the tale, including a potted history of Khrushchev’s failed reforms, the savagery of the gulags, the parallel criminal underworld in the Soviet Union, and the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian rising, with Leo trying to navigate each to stay alive and rescue his kidnapped daughter.  While there’s plenty of action and tension, the story becomes ever-more unbelievable as the tale progresses. Both the political thread and Leo’s quest become ragged, staged and driven by plot devices.  Leo not only survives the first hundred pages or so, but somehow has ninety-nine lives despite the numerous life-threatening scrapes he finds himself in.  The result is a Hollywood blockbuster that hides a tenuous plot with violence, melodrama, political intrigue, and a series of mini-cliffhangers. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Review of The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999, Sceptre)

Harry Starks is a fearsome and fearless London gangster in 1960s London who courts a legitimate front through his Soho club, The Stardust, and his friendship with minor celebrities and politicians.  Openly homosexual, he’s always a young man in tow from whom he expects loyalty and affection.  Running the seedier side of the Swinging Sixties – strip clubs, rent boys, porn shops, long firm scams – Harry does deals with bent coppers and terrorises his staff and victims while outwardly projecting charm and generosity.  Arnott reveals Harry’s complex nature through the stories of five people who spend significant time in his company – Terry, a rent boy; Teddy Thursby, a gay politician; Jack the Hat, a drug-addled gang member; Ruby, a failed film star turned strip-club manager; Lenny a sociology lecturer – charting the gangster’s rise and fall from the mid-60s to late 1970s.

The Long Firm was the first instalment in Jake Arnott’s London gangster trilogy that spans forty years.  The story charts the exploits of Harry Starks, a charismatic and violent gang boss who runs a series of rackets fronted by legitimate business interests.  Rather than tell the story from Starks perspective, Arnott provides five snapshots through the eyes of five people who become part of Harry’s world for a time, each manipulated by him for his own ends: a rent boy turned boyfriend; a politician turned company director; a gangster who’s fallen out of favour with the Krays; a failed film star turned strip-club manager; a sociologist turned advocate.  While breaking the tale into five separate accounts that occasionally intersect disrupts the overarching story arc, it’s an effective strategy for revealing Harry’s complex nature.  Each account is well told with a distinct voice and crafted prose, though they vary a little with regards to how compelling each is with the latter three having a stronger hook and thread in my view.  Nonetheless, the attention to detail throughout is excellent, with a keen eye for social and fashion trends, made more realistic through the use of real life characters of the time such as the Kray twins, Tom Driberg and Judy Garland.  The final instalment, with its discussion of sociological theories prevalent in the late 1960s and 1970s, is particularly well done.  Overall, an interesting literary, character-driven crime novel, that excels in capturing in the essence of a ruthless, cunning gang boss and the dark underbelly of Swinging London.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

This weekend I have been mostly sleeping and reading.  After a week's trip to Boston, followed by a short hop to Glasgow, it seems the batteries are pretty flat.  Between naps I've been working my way through Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech and working out what books I want to order to replenish the TBR pile.

My posts this week
Review of Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker
Review of Bulldog Drummond by Sapper

Saturday, April 15, 2017


A siren wailed, approaching at speed. 

Karl tumbled from the bed, scrabbling for shoes.

The curtains lit up blue.

Jackie must have blabbed. 

He bolted for the rear of the house as the car drew to a halt. 

The back door was locked, the old kitchen window was boarded shut. 

Something heavy hit the front door. 

‘Karl!’ Sheriff Jenkins yelled.  ‘Open-up!’

‘Shit!’ Karl tugged at the window board.

‘Karl, we made a deal!’

‘And you double-crossed me!’

‘And you triple-crossed.  You’re a dead man.’

The door splintered at the same time the board tore free.

Karl leapt into the darkness.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review of Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker (1975, Dell)

Boston PI Spenser has been hired by the Red Sox to investigate whether their star pitcher, Marty Rabb, has been throwing the occasional game.  Posing as a sports writer, Spenser starts to poke his nose into the affairs of the franchise.  He soon starts to suspect that all is not well in the Rabb household. In particular, there’s something a little out-of-kilter with Marty’s wife Linda.  With a little digging it Spenser discovers that Linda has a shady past; enough to attract the attention of a careful blackmailer.  And that blackmailer is not happy to have Spenser nosing around.

Mortal Stakes is the third book in the Spenser series (that ran to 39).  In this outing, Spenser is investigating the possibility that Red Sox baseball games are being fixed.  He quickly hones in on the potential vulnerable point in the life of salt-of-the-Earth, star pitcher, Marty Rabb.  It seems that a manager’s suspicions are correct, but rather than confirm the rumour and close the case Spenser prefers to help Rabb and his wife fix their problem and give them a second-chance.  That brings him into conflict with a ruthless blackmailer.  Parker tells the tale in a no-nonsense fashion.  There are no major twists or misdirection, and limited use of plot devices.  Rather the tale is just a well-told straightforward, linear PI investigation - Spenser spots a clue and then tracks down an answer.  The story moves along at a fair clip, with a series of tension points, and there’s a nice sense of time and place (Boston in the mid-1970s).  Overall, an enjoyable, uncomplicated PI tale.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review of Bulldog Drummond by Sapper (1920, Hodder)

Captain Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond is finding it difficult to adjust to civilian life after the First World War.  Seeking adventure he places an advertisement in a newspaper offering to tackle tasks that would provide excitement.  Among the many responses he receives is one from a young woman who suspects that her father is being blackmailed by a dangerous criminal.  Drummond quickly determines that the woman might be right, but the case is far more complicated involving an international conspiracy.  He also decides that the woman is right for him.  While conducting a world-wind romance, Drummond takes on a motley gang of criminals intent on wrecking Britain politically and economically, masterminded by the enigmatic and ruthless Carl Peterson.

Published in 1920, Bulldog Drummond was the first book in a series of ten books featuring the adventures of Captain Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond and his on-going semi-gentlemanly tussle with criminal mastermind Carl Peterson.  It’s ‘boys adventure’ fare, with Bulldog acting as the chivalrous white knight saving and falling in love with a young woman, rescuing a tortured American millionaire, while tackling a ruthless criminal and his gang.  It is very much a story of its time in two ways.  First, in terms of its telling, with very stilted dialogue and staged scenes.  Second, it is full of the social protocols and class relations of the age.  The story is kind of ridiculous, especially the duelling relationship between Bulldog and Peterson, who rather than simply killing one another when one gets the chance sets a trial and the chance of escape.  It all got a tedious pretty quickly despite the endless japes.  Except for being stuck on a plane with no other book it’s unlikely I’d have completed it otherwise.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a long week in Boston.  I've had full days of meetings and conference sessions since getting here. Friday in particular was busy as I was in five concurrent sessions from eight in the morning to seven at night, followed by a work meal.  This is my favourite photo from the event, from a panel late yesterday afternoon.  The 'disinterested Winston Churchill' look is one I might try and cultivate.

My posts this week
Long Black
Review of There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Long Black

‘I’m worried about that bag.’

‘Which bag?’

‘That bag over by the milk.’  Keith snaked out a long arm.

A suitcase was standing by the counter, the nearest person a few feet away.

‘It’s been there ten minutes.’

Keith headed towards the other patrons and started to quiz them.  Nobody claimed ownership.  Most shrugged, unconcerned.  A couple left.

A man appeared and grabbed the handle.

‘Where the fuck were you?’

‘The toilet.’

‘Literally taking the piss, you idiot!’

‘It’s a coffee shop.’

‘In central London.  D’ya really think the only Long Black you’re likely to get here is a coffee?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail, 2017)

Belfast 1988.  A recent returnee to Northern Ireland, a local drug-dealer, is found dead.  He’s been shot with a bolt from a crossbow in front of the house he shared with his Bulgarian wife.  Detective Sean Duffy returns from a holiday in Donegal to investigate. A few days earlier another man survived a similar attack. It seems as if local paramilitaries are actively policing drug-dealing in their area. Duffy keeps scratching at the case despite being directed to ‘yellow file’ it. Eventually his persistence starts to pay dividends, but it also brings a visit from Internal Affairs and attracts the attention of the IRA. If IA doesn’t push him out of the force, then the IRA might push him out of existence. To add spice to a difficult case, his partner has decided to seek a temporary break in their relationship, taking their young daughter with her. Duffy is not easily phased, but the stakes at work and home have got him worried.

There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly is the sixth book in Adrian McKinty’s excellent Sean Duffy series set in Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. In this outing, Duffy has settled down with his partner and has mellowed a little after the birth of their daughter. His work life is just as difficult as ever. Being a Catholic cop and head of Carrickfergus CID at the height of the Troubles is challenging; more so when you have a streak of intransigence and bloody-mindedness and want to solve every crime and have the wits to do so. In this case, Duffy seeks the killer of a local drug-dealer which brings him into the orbit of paramilitaries who ‘police’ local areas. As usual he manages to rub his own colleagues and powerful people up the wrong way, with potentially deadly consequences.  As with the other books, the characterisation, sense of place and time, intertextuality, and prose are excellent.  Duffy and his colleagues are three-dimensional characters and the dialogue throughout the story sparkles.  In addition, the pacing and plotting is very nicely done, with tale working its way to a tense denouement without the need for obvious plot devices.  The result is a wonderful addition to the series.

Monday, April 3, 2017

March reads

Quite a mixed month of reading with two standout books, Redemption Road by John Hart and The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell.  The latter was my read of the month.  An interesting plot, with a telling that made me laugh out loud several times.

Dead Skip by Joe Gores ****
Redemption Road by John Hart *****
The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell *****
The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner ****
Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea ***
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet ***
The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax ****
Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith ***.5

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I gave talk on Wednesday from a replica of the ballroom stairs on the Titanic in Belfast.  Given that while I was talking Teresa May was announcing the triggering of Article 50 it felt quite apt.

My posts this week

Dead Skip by Joe Gores ****
Redemption Road by John Hart *****
Fulbright award for Aoife Delaney
So starts a perfect day 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

So starts a perfect day

‘I’m tired, Joe.’

‘Another a minute.’

‘You’ve been saying that for the past half-an-hour.’

‘Here we go.  It’s coming.  Open your eyes, Daisy.’

‘I need to sleep.’

‘You’re missing it.’

Daisy rolled over onto her side.  ‘Big deal.’

‘It’s starting.  Oh, wow.’

‘This better be worth it.’  Daisy pushed herself up.

Peaking above the horizon was a slither of sun.  Its golden light danced across the lake; the leaves on the trees tinged with honey.

‘It’s beautiful.’

‘Worth staying awake for.’

‘Come-on,’ Daisy said, standing, starting to pull off clothes.

‘What are you doing?’


‘So starts a perfect day.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.