Book Review – WRONG LIGHT (2018) by Matt Coyle

WRONG LIGHT (2018) ***½
by Matt Coyle
This paperback edition published by Oceanview Publishing, 2018, 338pp
© Matt Coyle, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-60809-329-8

Blurb: Naomi Hendrix’s sexy voice hovering over the radio waves isn’t the only thing haunting the Southern California nights. A demented soul is stalking Naomi, hiding in the shadows of the night, waiting for the right moment to snatch her and fulfill a twisted fantasy. When Naomi’s radio station hires PI Rick Cahill to protect Naomi and track down the stalker, he discovers that Naomi is hiding secrets about her past that could help unmask the man. However, before Rick can extract the truth from Naomi, he is thrust into a missing person’s case–an abduction he may have unwittingly caused. The investigating detective questions Rick’s motives for getting involved and pressures him to stop meddling. While Rick pursues Naomi’s stalker and battles the police, evil ricochets from his own past and embroils Rick in a race to find the truth about an old nemesis. Is settling the score worth losing everything?

Comment:  This is the fifth book in Matt Coyle’s Rick Cahill series, but it is the first that I have read. It is a dark noir-ish novel which gives Private detective Cahill two unconnected cases to juggle – an unusual, but not unique, approach in a first-person PI novel. Coyle actually juggles the two stories pretty well, blending the action and key characters without confusing the reader. The primary case, concerning a female DJ being stalked is the more traditional, whilst the secondary case – involving the Russian Mafia and a hold they have over Cahill – refers back to events from previous books and readers would perhaps benefit in approaching this series from the beginning. That said, there is enough background provided to ensure you can also approach the book as a standalone. Cahill is a flawed hero and his manipulation of the few friends he has leaves him as something of a loner. The novel moves at a cracking pace and remains engaging throughout with many twists and turns – some that can be foreseen others that shock. As such the book challenges the reader at every turn. This can be both a positive and a negative in that it feels at times that Coyle is trying to be too clever and by doing so the reader can occasionally anticipate his next twist because they know not to take things at face value. The two plots run at different paces. The stalker plot line is almost text book mystery right up until its shocking conclusion. The Russian Mafia subsidiary plot line mixes the mystery element of the nature of the Russian Mob’s operation, in which they embroil Cahill, with action thriller elements of many a big screen crime thriller. Taken separately both would make for a very readable book. Blended together they at times make for an overly frenetic narrative that stretches credulity – not in the nature of the situations but in the way in which the police and FBI deal with them and Cahill seemingly can operate for days without much sleep. All said and done, I really enjoyed the book despite its over-ambition and look forward to seeing where Coyle takes Cahill next.

Book Review – DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1956) by Ian Fleming

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1956) ***½
by Ian Fleming
Diamonds Are Forever - Ian FlemingThis paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 309pp
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1956
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1956
Introduction by Giles Foden (13pp)
ISBN: 978-0-099-57688-4

Blurb: The Spangled Mob are no ordinary American gangsters. They prey on the addictions of the wealthy and treat the poor as collateral. Their ruthless desire for power and fierce brotherly loyalty make them deadly and invincible. James Bond must go deep undercover in his urgent new assignment: to destroy their millionaire masterminds, Jack and Seraffimo Spang. But the Spangs’ cruel influence is everywhere, from dusty African diamond mines to the frenzied gambling dens of Las Vegas. Can Bond find his men before his cover is blown?

Comment: This fourth novel in Fleming’s James Bond series is better than I remember. Whilst the plot is fairly basic in Bond’s assignment to link the pipeline of diamond smuggling from its source to distribution, it moves at a good pace and is never dull. The villains. the Spangled Mob, are merely violent gangsters controlling the gambling casinos in Las Vegas as well as the diamond operation. Their methods are basic. We learn a bit more about Bond through his interaction with Tiffany Case – a sympathetic character with a dark history. We also learn why Bond has never married and get confirmation of his loyalty to his service. The action set pieces are good – although this time the torture of Bond by Spang’s henchmen takes place “off-screen”. There is a good locomotive chase and the first finale on board the Queen Elizabeth liner is exciting. Whilst not in the series’ top drawer it is on a par with Live and Let Die as a fast-moving action thriller.

Book Review – AMOS FLAGG: SHOWDOWN (1969) by Clay Randall

AMOS FLAGG: SHOWDOWN (1969) ***½
by Clay Randall (Clifton Adams)
This paperback edition published by Cornonet Books, 13 July 1970, 144pp
ISBN: 0-340-12952-2
      Blurb: The new marshal’s problem is that he likes to kill people, and soon the town is crawling with fast-draw artists anxious to challenge the marshal’s growing reputation as a gunman. There’s still one man who stands between the marshal and the gunmen – and that’s Amos Flagg. The only question is, does Flagg want to save him?
      Comment: This is the sixth and final book in Clifton Adams’ (writing as Clay Randall) Amos Flagg Western series. It is a typical tale of confilct in a town where the experienced sheriff and the gung-ho town marshall are at odds with each other. Throw in a vengeful grieving widow and outlaws out to make a name for themselves and you have the recipe for a fast-moving and entertaining, if familiar, read. The writing is concise and the characters are colourful. Adams died at the age of 51 in 1971 having written numerous westerns and also a handful of excellent crime novels. He influenced authors such as Craig Johnson (creator of the Longmire series) and is gaining appreciation through a new readership.

Book Review – A GENESIS IN MY BED: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2020) by Steve Hackett

A GENESIS IN MY BED: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2020) ****
by Steve Hackett
This hardback edition published by Wymer Publishing, 2020, 167pp plus index)
© Stephen Hackett / Wymer Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-912782-38-3
      Marketing Blurb: The long overdue autobiography from guitar great and former member of Genesis, Steve Hackett. As with his music, Steve has written a highly detailed, entertaining and embracing tome that charts his life in full, but with a firm emphasis on his years with Genesis that saw the band’s meteoric rise to become one of the most successful British bands of all time. Steve talks candidly about his early life, his time with Genesis, and in particular his personal relationships with the other four band members, with great insight into the daily goings on of this major rock band. Naturally A Genesis In My Bed also regales stories of Steve’s career since leaving Genesis and the many different journeys that it has taken him on. With his flair for the creative, and a great deal of levity, A Genesis In My Bed is a riveting read. Indispensable for Genesis fans but also essential for general music lovers and avid readers of autobiographies full of heartfelt and emotive tales.
      Comment: The first thing you notice about Steve Hackett’s autobiography is the brief page count. This is both a blessing and a curse. It makes the read quick and concise but also sketches over details that dedicated fans may have wanted, notably on his later solo career. That said I found the book hugely enjoyable and after reading it felt, as a result, I knew much more about what makes Hackett tick – his insecurities in particular. His writing is literate and informative and full of anecdotes. The book is effectively split into three sections: Growing up and family life pre-Genesis; the Genesis years and his post-Genesis solo career. The first section gives much insight into the formation of Hackett’s personality. A shy youngster lacking in self-confidence, but with a natural musical ability, striving to find his niche. His ultimate link up with Genesis, via an interesting Melody Maker ad, is well known through band biographies.
Hackett’s time with the band highlights his initial reticence to assert himself, although he was instrumental in the band purchasing a Mellotron, which helped transform their sound. He grew in confidence once Gabriel had left the band – Hackett had recorded his first solo album, in the interim between The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and A Trick of the Tail. His newfound confidence through solo compositions became more apparent on Wind & Wuthering, but also sowed the seeds for his leaving Genesis when his intention to continue a solo career alongside the band was vetoed by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford. His ultimate departure was swift, during the mixing of the live album Seconds Out. At the time Hackett let some of his frustrations out in subsequent press interviews. Here, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, he is more objective and sees how if he had been more patient he may well have been able to combine the two further down the road – as became apparent once Banks, Rutherford and Phil Collins launched their own solo careers only two or three years later. Hackett is very complimentary of his former bandmates and makes it clear they all get on well, despite occasional disagreements and insensitivities – notably the editing out of Hackett’s solo career from the band’s 2004 documentary Together and Apart.
The latter part of the book, covering Hackett’s post-Genesis solo career is the most sketchy and therefore least informative – although he candidly documents the stresses of managing his solo career as well as his post-punk struggles with the record companies and the music press. Hackett comes across as an immensely likeable bloke, whose desire to nurture talent and have a settled and supportive partner has been his driving force. His third wife Jo has been a keen supporter and soulmate. Hackett’s return to the Genesis archive to mix the band’s songs with his own solo output in his live set confirms he has come to terms with his inner self and is probably the happiest he has ever been. His final words, “I have finally found home,” confirm this. A pleasurable and heartwarming read.

Book Review – MOONRAKER (1955) by Ian Fleming

MOONRAKER  (1955) ****½
by Ian Fleming
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 325pp
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1955
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1955
Introduction by Susan Hill (20pp)
ISBN: 978-0-099-57687-7
Moonraker      Blurb: He’s a self-made millionaire, head of the Moonraker rocket programme and loved by the press. So why is Sir Hugo Drax cheating at cards? Bond has just five days to uncover the sinister truth behind a national hero, in Ian Fleming’s third 007 adventure.
      Comment: Anyone familiar with the 1979 film adaptation – the low point of Roger Moore’s tenure as James Bond – should lay any preconceptions at the door. This is one of the very best James Bond novels. Unlike the first two in the series, Fleming’s third 007 adventure gives his lead character room to breathe and as a result, he becomes a more human hero. The first part of the book is the set-up and is almost routine in its playout – showing Bond’s life between missions. The introduction of Sir Hugo Drax, who is suspected of cheating at cards at M’s private club, sets the foundation for the remainder of the story. Drax is something of a celebrity figure and is respected for his development of an atomic deterrent in the ever-escalating cold war environment. The death of Drax’a security chief raises suspicions and Bond replaces him. Slowly he infiltrates Drax’s operation, run by a team of German technicians and supported by Drax’s personal assistant Gala Brand, who is, in fact, an undercover special branch officer. As Bond and Gala slowly unravel the reality around Drax’s test flight for his Moonraker rocket – echoes of WWII resentment and Russian coercion come into play. The final section of the book is taut, suspenseful and one of the best passages of writing in Fleming’s bibliography. Drax is one of Fleming’s best villains and Krebs a sinister henchman. Gala is an appealing heroine, who is brave and resourceful. The lonely life of a spy is described in Bond’s routine work and the ironic coda and his relationship with his boss, M, is explored to some degree. This set the template for more fantastical plots and charismatic villains and as such is highly recommended as a great example of what the series offered.

Book Review – LIVE AND LET DIE (1954)

LIVE AND LET DIE  (1954) ***½
by Ian Fleming
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2019, 303pp
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1954
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1954
ISBN: 978-0-099-57686-0
      Blurb: Mr Big is brutal, brilliant and feared worldwide. Protected by Voodoo forces and the psychic powers of his prisoner Solitaire, he is an invincible SMERSH operative at the head of a ruthless smuggling ring. James Bond’s new assignment will take him to the heart of the occult: to infiltrate this secret world and destroy Mr Big’s global network. From Harlem’s throbbing jazz joints to the shark-infested waters of Jamaica, enemy eyes watch Bond’s every move. He must tread carefully to avoid a nightmarish fate.
      Comment: Ian Fleming’s follow-up to his debut James Bond novel Casino Royale is a fast-paced and entertaining read. It is also a relic of its time and the text, although softened in this version, should be taken in that context in the way it deals with its largely black cast of characters. Bond is up against Mr. Big, who is smuggling sunken pirate treasure to help fund the Russian spy network SMERSH. Bolstered by its action set-pieces – notably as Bond and Felix Leiter penetrate Mr Big’s empire resulting in Leiter “disagreeing with something that ate him” and the tense finale where Bond and Solitaire are hauled over a corral reef. The book has three settings – New York, the Florida keys and Jamaica and is the first of the books to introduce a globe-hopping element. Bond is presented as a tough and single-minded agent with little time for sentiment. Mr. Big is an impressive, if two-dimensional, villain. Themes of voodoo permeate throughout the plot, but are not fully explored. Solitaire is a little bland and her supposed powers to see into the future are underplayed as a potentially interesting character dissolves into the typical captive woman yearning for Bond to free her. Fleming was still honing his craft at this stage and better stories and plots would follow, but it remains a good example of why the series became so popular.

Book Review – THE TWISTED THING (1966) by Mickey Spillane

THE TWISTED THING (1966) ****
by Mickey Spillane
This paperback edition published in The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume 3 by Obsidian, 2010, 178pp (524pp) with The Girl Hunters (1962) and The Snake (1964)
Introduction by Max Allan Collins
First published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, 1962
ISBN: 978-0-451-23124-6
      Blurb: This is some household. The kid is a genius, the father a scientist of international repute. Money is a problem. Not a shortage of money, but the opposite: too much. The sort of money that brings the envious and the scheming clustering like flies around offal: nieces, nephews, cousins … a family of mean minds and gross appetites. The staff has its peculiarities, too: the chauffeur is an ex-con; the governess formerly a featured act in strip clubs from New York to Miami; and the secretary has a well-developed taste in other women. Yes, it’s some household – and not all that welcoming of PI Mike Hammer, not when the kid has been kidnapped and everyone’s a suspect.
      Comment: This ninth Mike Hammer novel from the pen of Mickey Spillane seems to hark back to the noir mystery thrillers of the 40s and 50s. There’s a reason for that. This was in fact the second Mike Hammer book Spillane wrote (after I, the Jury – published in 1947). It had initially been rejected by Spillane’s publisher who was looking for something tougher, more violent, sexy and vengeance-driven after the success of the first book. So, Spillane obliged with My Gun is Quick and shelved The Twisted Thing for 18 years.  It’s easy to see why the book was initially passed as it tends to blend into the more traditional field that surrounded it at the time. That said the book is not without its moments of violence and sex. The main difference is Hammer is less driven by vengeance and his two-fisted ways of obtaining his leads and works more as a detective in the Chandler or MacDonald mode. Indeed a softer side to his character is shown in his attachment to the kidnapped boy. As such, the book is refreshing with its complex kidnap/murder plot built around a large dysfunctional family and has distinct echoes of some of the classics of the genre. Excepting one or two fanciful advancements of the plot, Spillane keeps the reader engaged throughout and his writing is often impressive as Spillane sticks with the tried and tested first-person narrative until its twist ending. The setting is mostly a small town in New York state, so the change of environment also serves to freshen up the formula. One of the best of the later published Mike Hammer novels, this is worth seeking out.

Book Review – THE SNAKE (1964) by Mickey Spillane

THE SNAKE (1964) ***
by Mickey Spillane
This paperback edition published in The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume 3 by Obsidian, 2010, 158pp (524pp) with The Girl Hunters (1962) and The Twisted Thing (1966)
Introduction by Max Allan Collins
First published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, 1962
ISBN: 978-0-451-23124-6
      Blurb: New York PI Mike Hammer has traced his lost love and secretary, Velda, who went missing seven years ago. In a race against time, Mike has to move her to another location, but she is sheltering a young woman who fears for her life. Finally safe once again, Hammer devotes his time to helping the young woman, who is being threatened by her stepfather. But as Hammer investigates some leads on the seedier side of town, he finds himself caught up in a three-decades-old mystery involving a great deal of money that’s gone missing. And just who is The Snake? Mike is going to have to figure that one out, or three lives – his, Velda’s and the girl’s – are in danger.
      Comment: Mickey Spillane had returned to his most famous creation, New York PI Mike Hammer, with 1962’s The Girl Hunters. In that book, we saw Hammer come out of a 7-year drinking bender when he learned his secretary and love Velda, who he had assumed dead, is still alive. That book ended before Hammer and Velda were reunited. The Snake picks up immediately where The Girl Hunters left off and pitches Hammer into a new case. Whilst rescuing Velda, Hammer also rescues a young blonde girl on the run from her stepfather, who is a high-moving politician. The girl believes her stepfather killed her mother. It becomes clear the case is linked to a robbery that took place more than 30 years earlier, which the girl’s father prosecuted as a DA. The Snake is a less successful novel than its predecessor and feels a little lacking in inspiration. The plot is familiar to genre fans in its exploration of themes around familial disharmony, trust, power and greed. Many of the plot progressions that lead Hammer to the eventual solution are incredibly contrived and coincidental. The “when will they” dilly-dallying between Hammer and Velda also becomes a little tiresome and irritating. That said it is a quick and easy read and will broadly entertain fans of thick-ear hard-boiled mysteries. Its lack of sophistication may hold it back from other stronger examples in the field, but there are moments when Spillane captures a rhythm with his prose that suggests a stronger book could have emerged if more time had been spent ironing out some of the plot difficulties which led to the writer taking the easy way out. The Snake sits in the lower rankings in the Mike Hammer bibliography but is a required read for those wanting to tie the outstanding threads from The Girl Hunters.

Book Review – THE GIRL HUNTERS (1962) by Mickey Spillane

THE GIRL HUNTERS (1962) ***½
by Mickey Spillane
This paperback edition published in The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume 3 by Obsidian, 2010, 171pp (524pp) with The Snake (1964) and The Twisted Thing (1966)
Introduction by Max Allan Collins
First published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, 1962
ISBN: 978-0-451-23124-6
      Blurb: Seven years of hitting the hard stuff have taken it out of PI Mike Hammer. That’s how long it’s been since he gave his beloved secretary the job from which she never returned. Now he’s back with a vengeance. Velda is alive, if only he can reach her in time. But New York’s toughest investigator still has friends in the right places. And his long-neglected .45 is definitely one of those. Piecing together the puzzling deaths of a senator, a newsagent and an FBI man, Hammer finds the missing link in a murderous network of international spies. One that turns out to be Spillane’s kind of beauty – and who knows a good deal more than she should.
      Comment: There was a 10-year gap between Mickey Spillane’s sixth and seventh Mike Hammer novels (Kiss Me Deadly and The Girl Hunters).  During this period Spillane semi-retired from writing and had become a Jehovah’s Witness. The Girl Hunters addresses the absence of Mike Hammer novels during this period by introducing a plot element that has Hammer’s secretary Velda missing in action for the last seven years. Hammer believing her dead has turned to drink, lost his PI licence and his friendship with NYPD captain Pat Chambers. But when a dying man gives Hammer hope Velda is still alive, he sobers up and resolves to find her. The mystery elements are blended well as the dying man is linked to the murder of a US senator and these events, in turn, are linked to the case Hammer and Velda were working on before her disappearance. Meanwhile, Hammer has become involved with Laura, the senator’s widow. The plot may be fanciful with its mix of espionage and hit-men, but Spillane manages to keep the reader from dwelling on the absurdities and emboils us in Hammer’s search for Velda. Whilst the early passages are slow as we become re-acquainted with Hammer and learn of the nature of Velda’s disappearance, once this set-up has been explained the pace quickens and the action is tough, sexy and intriguing. The finale is pure Spillane and will satisfy his loyal fan base. Written with tough-guy dialogue and in a spare first-person narrative prose, Spillane hits his stride once more and would enter a second prolific phase of writing, which could have been written ten years earlier.  A year later the book was adapted into a movie, in which Spillane played his own creation.

Book Review – APROPOS OF NOTHING (2020) by Woody Allen

APROPOS OF NOTHING (2020) ****
by Woody Allen
This hardback edition published by Arcade Publishing, 23 March 2020, 392pp
© Woody Allen, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-951627-34-8
Apropos of Nothing by [Woody Allen]     Blurb: In this candid and often hilarious memoir, the celebrated director, comedian, writer, and actor offers a comprehensive, personal look at his tumultuous life. Beginning with his Brooklyn childhood and his stint as a writer for the Sid Caesar variety show in the early days of television, working alongside comedy greats, Allen tells of his difficult early days doing standup before he achieved recognition and success. With his unique storytelling pizzazz, he recounts his departure into moviemaking, with such slapstick comedies as Take the Money and Run, and revisits his entire, sixty-year-long, and enormously productive career as a writer and director, from his classics Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters to his most recent films, including Midnight in Paris. Along the way, he discusses his marriages, his romances and famous friendships, his jazz playing, and his books and plays. We learn about his demons, his mistakes, his successes, and those he loved, worked with, and learned from in equal measure. This is a hugely entertaining, deeply honest, rich and brilliant self-portrait of a celebrated artist who is ranked among the greatest filmmakers of our time.
      Comment: Woody Allen’s autobiography is a fascinating insight into the life of one of modern cinema’s true geniuses. But, like some of his films, it feels like it could have been even better. Caught between two stools – 1. Giving an honest and witty account of his life and his films and 2. Finally taking the opportunity at length to give his version of the molestation allegations made against him by Dylan Farrow. Allen says that he hopes no-one has bought the book simply on the back of point 2 and regrets having to devote so much space (more than 80 pages) to that issue. That he does so is a necessity, however, as much of the publicity around the case has been based on one side’s account – which was proved to be heavily flawed by a thorough investigation and is further questioned on reading Allen’s plausible version of the whole sorry tale that has likely unfairly tarnished one of America’s greatest filmmakers. It has done so to such an extent that his films can no longer be funded in his own country where there have been vigorous attempts by the Farrow family to prevent publication of this book – Ronan Farrow taking the highly dubious moral high ground view that in such allegations only the point of view of the accuser is to be heard. If those too eager to jump on the accusatory bandwagon would only take the time to read Allen’s account of events they will no doubt reflect on their initial judgement and come to doubt the motivation behind a campaign against Allen led by his manipulative former partner (although importantly not co-habiting partner), Mia Farrow, whose own behaviour is remarkably questionable. Allen’s indifference to his predicament is perhaps the most frustrating element. His philosophical attitude, whilst dignified has also not helped his case. My advice is to read his account and judge for yourselves.
Despite my own inclination –  having read accounts from both sides and considered the judgement of the investigation into the allegation that took place at the time  – that Allen has been falsely accused by a vindictive former partner with highly questionable parenting techniques, there are elements of Allen’s life story that leave the reader a little uncomfortable about his partner choices. It is ironic that his happiest relationship, and a marriage that has lasted 25 years, is with Soon-YI the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow, who was twenty-one when Farrow learned of their affair. Allen has made his partner choices on impulse and little rationalisation and suffered the consequences of those choices. But that shows he is only human in his naivety and he is certainly not unique in having naivety as one of his flaws.
On his career, both as a filmmaker and part-time musician, Allen remains winningly self-deprecating. In his own view, he has never made a great movie. There will undoubtedly be many who agree, possibly based on preconceptions or just a sheer divergence of taste. Most authoritative commentators and scholars of film history would put a strong case for at least four masterpieces in his filmography. For me, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours stand with the very best American cinema has to offer. Many of his other films come close. he has also made his share of average movies, or movies that do not achieve his ambition. Allen firmly lays the blame for any quality divergence at his own door – acknowledging his lack of perfectionism as a director or his inability to convert his writing vision to celluloid. He looks to surround himself with the best people he can get. His choice of legendary cinematographers and top-class actors is unquestioned. The freedom he gives these artists to explore their craft is his real skill. Allen will only pull them up if their interpretation of his script or direction is off-key.  He has been known to wholly re-shoot movies or re-cast parts. Again he does not blame the actor or artist’s skills, merely that his own initial judgement in the choice was wrong.
Where the book may disappoint is in the insight Allen offers on his own body of work. We rarely get to scratch beneath the surface of the themes he explores in his movies. Allen’s way is to write film, edit, release and move on. he never looks back and never rewatches any of his movies once they have been completed and released. he no longer reads critiques and has never accepted awards. Many of his movies are covered in 1-2 pages, which to some extent in a sizeable filmography is understandable, but offers nothing to the fan or scholar wishing to get further insight into his films or the creative process in their making.
Hopefully, before he leaves this world the truth around the allegation that has dogged his career since the early 1990s will win out and Allen’s stature in motion picture history will be rightly acknowledged. In the meantime, this autobiography at least enables him to state his case and for those who retain an open mind, it will help them arrive at their own balanced judgement.