NOTHING SHORT OF DYING by ERIK STOREY (2016, Simon & Schuster, 314pp) ***
Blurb: Sixteen years. That’s how long Clyde Barr has been away from Colorado’s thick forests, alpine deserts, and craggy peaks, running from a past filled with haunting memories. But now he’s back, having roamed across three continents as a hunter, adventurer, soldier of fortune, and most recently, unjustly imprisoned convict. And once again, his past is reaching out to claim him. By the light of a flickering campfire, Clyde receives a frantic phone call from his sister Jen. No sooner has she pleaded with him to come rescue her than the line goes dead. Clyde doesn’t know how much time he has, or where Jen is located, or even who has her. All he knows is that nothing short of dying will stop him from saving her. Joining Clyde in his against-all-odds quest is a young woman named Allie whose motivations for running this gauntlet are fascinatingly complex. As the duo races against the clock, it is Allie who gets Clyde to see what he has become and what he can still be.
Erik Storey’s debut novel is an assured riff on the loner action hero popularised by Lee Child and Vince Flynn. Where Clyde Barr is different is that he has a family of sisters, one of whom experienced with him abuse as a child by a succession of their mother’s men, giving him a personal stake in the story. The plot here is a basic kidnap plot serving to introduce a character to an audience Storey hopes will invest in through a series (a taster for the follow-up, A Promise to Kill, is included in this paperback edition). Here Storey succeeds admirably making Barr a seemingly more human hero than say Child’s Jack Reacher, if no less indestructable. The violent action scenes are also well-written and there is a good establishing relationship between Barr and saloon girl, Allie, who he falls for. Whilst Allie’s willingness to accompany Barr plays a little conveniently as a device to give Barr someone to worry about, it does allow for some good character interplay. The psychotic Zeke, who Barr enlists for help, is a little too caricatured and the villains are your typical violent and charmless drug dealing thugs. We even get the Feds in the black SUVs. The resolution is straight-forward and there are no twists or stings in the tail. As an action thriller it works well and is a cinfident debut. It will be interesting to see whether Storey can add depth and variation to the formula going forward.
JACK CARTER’S LAW by TED LEWIS (1974, Syndicate Books, 222pp) ****
Blurb: It’s the late 1960s in London and Jack Carter is the top man in a crime syndicate headed by two brothers—Gerald and Les Fletcher. He’s also a worried man. The fact that he’s sleeping with Gerald’s wife, Audrey, and that they plan on someday running away together with a lot of the brothers’ money, doesn’t have Jack concerned. Instead it’s an informant—one of his own men—that has him losing sleep. The grass has enough knowledge about the firm to not only bring down Gerald and Les but Jack as well. Jack doesn’t like his name in the mouth of that sort. It should be an easily solved problem for London’s suavest fixer, except for one slight problem: Jack has no idea where the grass is hiding.
Jack Carter’s Law is Ted Lewis’ follow-up to his highly influential Jack’s Return Home, which was filmed as, and later retitled, Get Carter. This second book in the series is set prior to the first. Whereas Jack’s Return Home gave Lewis’ anti-hero a personal vendetta as motivation for the ensuing mayhem, here Carter is acting in his role as fixer/enforcer for one of London’s biggest criminal gangs. As such, there is little for the reader to root for in a cast of characters that have few, if any, redeeming qualities. That said, Lewis masterfully keeps you engaged through his first-person perspective. Written in the present tense, not a popular style but effective here, the action feels immediate and the tension is kept high. Lewis also has a penchant for long descriptive paragrpahs, punctuated by salty and humorous dialogue. The book is not for the faint-hearted – there are several moments of brutality and cruelty – but for fans of gritty pulp fiction this is a great example of the genre. Lewis became something of a cult figure in the world of gritty crime fiction and unfortunately died young (aged only 42) after a battle with alcoholism.
THE GOODBYE LOOK by ROSS MACDONALD (1969, Penguin, 282pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: Lew Archer, world-weary private investigator, is hired by Larry and Irene Chalmers when they suspect that their troubled son Nick is involved in their own burglary. But when a fellow investigator – one who’s been working with Nick – turns up dead, Archer soon realizes this isn’t simply about some stolen loot. To help their son, Archer must uncover the truth about a kidnap years ago, and discover why the handgun from a decades-old killing apparently turns up at every new and terrible murder.
Ross MacDonald is one of three writers considered to be the pinnacle fo the private eye genre – the other two being Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammet. His Lew Archer novels and stories build on Chandler’s cynical view of Los Angeles and the flawed characters who inhabit it. This is the fifteenth of eighteen novels MacDonald wrote featuring the character and is typical of the later entries in the series. Archer becomes embroiled in a case revolving around a small group of families – all of whom are disfunctional. The mystery plot is cleverly unravelled as the book progresses at a good pace. With its convoluted plot, flawed characters and lone detective hero it feels as if it lives in the 40s or 50s, despite being set in a contemporary 1969. However, MacDonald was by then a master of his craft and his skill overcomes the slighly anachronistic feel. Highly recommended for scholars of the genre and fans in general.
Lew Archer novels:
- The Moving Target (1949)
- The Drowning Pool (1950)
- The Way Some People Die (1951)
- The Ivory Grin (1952) ****
- Find a Victim (1954)
- The Barbarous Coast (1956)
- The Doomsters (1958)
- The Galton Case (1959) *****
- The Wycherly Woman (1961)
- The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)
- The Chill (1964)
- The Far Side of the Dollar (1965)
- Black Money (1966) ****
- The Instant Enemy (1968)
- The Goodbye Look (1969) ****
- The Underground Man (1971)
- Sleeping Beauty (1973)
- The Blue Hammer (1976) ****
THE DRY by JANE HARPER (2016, Abacus, 404pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: Who really killed the Hadler family? In the small town of Kiewarra, it hasn’t rained for two years. Swept up in the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, the town crackles with seething malice and unvoiced grudges. Tensions in the community are at breaking point when three members of the Hadler family are suddenly brutally murdered. Everyone thinks Luke Hadler, who committed suicide after slaughtering his wife and six-year-old son, is guilty, but is he just an easy scapegoat? Policeman Aaron Falk returns to the town of his youth for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and is unwillingly drawn into the investigation. As questions mount and suspicion spreads through the town, Falk is forced to confront the community that rejected him twenty years earlier. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret, one which Luke’s death threatens to unearth. And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, secrets from his past and why he left home bubble to the surface as he questions the truth of his friend’s crime.
Jane Harper’s debut novel is a confident mystery thriller with an evocative closed community setting. The book links together two mysteries – one in the present, the other from twenty years earlier. Harper’s detective hero, Aaron Falk, is linked to the mystery from the past via his friend, Luke Hadler, who along with his family are the victims of the mystery of the present. Both are seeming suicides and may be linked. The book unravels these mysteries through clever use of flashback passages, frequently interspersed with the present day case. Chapters and scenes are edited so as to keep the reader turning the pages. The characters are vividly drawn and the reader is left guessing right up until the reveal. A strong debut for a proposed series.
THE REDEEMERS by ACE ATKINS (2015, Corsair, 370pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: He is only in his early thirties, but now Quinn Colson is jobless – voted out of office as sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi, thanks to the machinations of county kingpin Johnny Stagg. He has offers, in bigger and better places, but before he goes, he’s got one more job to do – bring down Stagg’s criminal operations for good. At least that’s the plan. But in the middle of the long, hot summer, a trio of criminals stage a bold, wall-smashing break-in at the home of a local lumber mill owner, making off with a million dollars in cash from his safe, which is curious, because the mill owner is wealthy – but not that wealthy. None of this has anything to do with Colson, but during the investigation, two men are killed, one of them the new sheriff. His friend, acting sheriff Lillie Virgil, and a dangerous former flame, Anna Lee Stevens, both ask him to step in, and reluctantly he does, only to discover that that safe contained more than just money – it held secrets. Secrets that could either save Colson – or destroy him once and for all.
The fifth novel in Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series is the closest the author has come to emulating one of his writing heroes – Elmore Leonard. The story is populated with the type of characters Leonard employed in many of his crime novels set in the modern west. The plot itself is slight, being centred around a robbery, but the character interaction, double-crossing and the bigger picture of Colson’s mission to put Johnny Stagg behind bars keep the pages turning. Atkins has a great handle on his characters and embellishes them through their salty dialogue. Whilst the plot itself reaches a conclusion, some of the domestic threads that have ran through the series are left loose. there is also a signal in the series taking a change of direction in its final pages. Another strong addition to an excellent series.
DIE LAST by TONY PARSONS (2017. Century, 406pp) ∗∗∗
Blurb: 12 DEAD GIRLS As dawn breaks on a snowy February morning, a refrigerated lorry is found parked in the heart of London’s Chinatown. Inside, twelve women, apparently illegal immigrants, are dead from hypothermia. 13 PASSPORTS But in the cab of the abandoned death truck, DC Max Wolfe of West End Central finds thirteen passports. WHERE IS SHE? The hunt for the missing woman will take Max Wolfe into the dark heart of the world of human smuggling, mass migration and 21st-century slave markets, as he is forced to ask the question that haunts our time. What would you do for a home?
Having really enjoyed The Hanging Club I delved straight into Parsons’ new novel, the fourth in his DC Max Wolfe series. The plot deals with the trafficking of humans from Eastern Europe and again brings Wolfe into confrontation with former London gangster Paul Warboys and his family. The book moves along at a fair lick and there are shocks and twists along the way. But this is less successful than the previous book as some of the police tactics seem questionable at best and reckless at worst. Untrained detectives going undercover into dangerous situation may make for thrilling sequences, but leave the reader questioning the authenticity of it all. There are attempts to add further depth to the lead characters through varying domestic crises, which helps give the story a more rounded feel and the reader characters to root for. The detectives though seem too keen to add their moral stance to every twist and turn of the plot. Overall, whilst not as satisfying as the previous book , this is again a fast, pacy read and never less than entertaining despite its flaws.
THE HANGING CLUB by TONY PARSONS (2016, Arrow, 374pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: A band of vigilante executioners roam London’s hot summer nights, abducting evil men and hanging them by the neck until dead. As the bodies pile up and riots explode across the sweltering city, DC Max Wolfe hunts a gang of killers who many believe to be heroes.
This is the third book in Tony Parsons’ DC Max Wolfe series and it is a tight, efficient crime thriller. The themes of the injustice of the legal system and revenge are manipulated by Parsons to evoke maximum engagement and emotion from the reader. This he does well for the most part before settling into more familiar genre conventions in the final part. Wolfe is a character wresling with his conscience as he balances the needs of his job and the constraints of the law with his desire to see that justice is done. The ambiguities lead him to make wrong decisions and put his career – and his life – at risk. Written in the first person, we get inside Wolfe’s head as he unravels the knots of the mystery of the vigilante group. Whilst there is nothing particularly new here, the quality of the writing is more than strong enough to make this a book you won’t be able to put down.
STAY CLOSE by HARLAN COBEN (2012, Orion, 406pp) ∗∗∗½
Blurb: Megan once walked on the wild side. Now she’s got two kids, a perfect husband, a picket fence, and a growing sense of dissatisfaction. Ray used to be a talented documentary photographer, but at age forty he finds himself in a dead-end job posing as a paparazzo pandering to celebrity-obsessed rich kids. Broome is a detective who can’t let go of a cold case – a local husband and father disappeared seventeen years ago, and Broome spends the anniversary every year visiting a house frozen in time, the missing man’s family still waiting, his slippers left by the recliner as if he might show up any moment to step into them. Three people living lives they never wanted, hiding secrets that even those closest to them would never suspect. As the terrible consequences of long-ago events crash together in the present and threaten to ruin lives they will discover the hard truth that the line between one kind of life and another can be as whisper-thin as a heartbeat…
Harlan Coben writes page-turning crime thrillers with a post-modern dose of humour. The plot here borders on incredulity, by insisting that a series of murders committed annually at the same spot could go undetected for twenty years. But if you are prepared to accept this premise then you are in for a fast-paced and entertaining read. The three central characters – Megan, a woman with a secret past; Ray, a photographer who cannot forget the love of his life despite being seaparated for seventeen years and Broome, the detective who can’t hold down a relationship – are cleverly intertwined in the story. Coben uses his brand of sarcastic wit across the dialogue of a number of characters, but manages to keep it this side of annoying. The resolution comes with the appropriate twist.
GENESIS – THE ULTIMATE MUSIC GUIDE (2017, Uncut, 122pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: The Ultimate Music Guide: Genesis, then, seeks to explain the whole shapeshifting brilliance of the band. We’ve delved deep into the archives of NME and Melody Maker, finding interviews with the members that have languished unseen for decades. You’ll see characters emerging and plans being formulated, key figures stepping in and out of the spotlight. A career path being mapped out that does not always appear obvious, but which incrementally builds Genesis into one of the biggest bands of their era. Alongside all these revelatory interviews, we’ve written in-depth new reviews of every single Genesis album, from their 1969 debut right up until 1997’s Calling All Stations, stopping off at all auspicious points in between. We’ve also investigated the significant solo careers: not just of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, but of Steve Hackett, Anthony Phillips, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, too. It’s a tricky tale, but an endlessly rewarding one.
Uncut‘s series of The UltimateMusic Guide finally gets around to Genesis. The magazine stretches to 122 pages covering all aspect of the band. Each album is reviewed by a different writer, which ensures they get a dedicated hearing, but also means there are some inconsistencies in terms of judgement and comment. Having said that, there is an admirable balance across the whole of the band’s output as the writers resist falling into the trap of siding with the 5-man line-up or the trio. What this means, however, is that some tracks within the albums are not rated according to their status within the fan base. Classic Genesis songs like Firth of Fifth, I Know What I Like, Los Endos, Afterglow, Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End, Home by the Sea, Domino and Fading Lights all receive just 3-stars, which is hard to accept. However, everyone will have their own favourites and there are some compelling arguments here for the stance taken. The interviews pulled from the archives of NME and Melody Maker are weighted toward the early years. Both papers took with the punk crowd in the late 70s and were savage in their treatment of Genesis thereafter – the later review extracts demonstrate this. The band members’ solo careers are also covered, with particularly interesting perspectives on the output of both Peter Gabriel and Phil Colins. Despite its flaws, this is a good read and an interesting take on a band that, despite its popularity with the music buying public, continues to divide opinion amongst critics.
SHAFT: IMITATION OF LIFE by DAVID F. WALKER/DIETRICH SMITH (2017, Dynamite, 104pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: After a high-profile case puts him in the headlines, private detective John Shaft is looking for something low profile and easy that will keep him out of the spotlight, out of danger. Shaft takes a missing person case that proves to be more difficult than he initially thought. At the same time, he is hired to be a consultant on a low budget film that may or may not be based on his life, and proves to be as dangerous as any job he’s ever had. But when there’s danger all about, John Shaft is the cat that won’t cop out – even if it means squaring off against sadistic gangsters that want him dead.
The trade paperback publication of this four-part comic book arrives a year after similar treatement for Shaft: A Complicated Man. David F. Walker returns as writer and is partnered with Dietrich Smith as artist. The book demonstrates the confidence Walker took from his critically acclaimed debut as the literary heir to Ernest Tidyman’s creation. The story stretches itself around social issues of a decaying New York and the expoitation of young gays through pornography. Walker also finds time to seemingly take a satirical swipe at some of the excesses of Blaxploitation cinema, by having Shaft work as a consultant on a film based on his own exploits, only here exaggerated to comical effect. In reality, however, this is a dig at the makers of the proposed new Shaft movie, which is reported to have a comedic slant. Smith’s artwork is more bold and colourful than the more sensitive tones applied by Bilquis Evely. His work is very effective and at times sublime – notably in the use of light and shade at the start of Part 3, where Shaft is interviewed by detectives in his office. Ultimately, whilst the story lacks the dramatic and emotional bite of Walker’s debut, it is an entertaining read lifting the lid on the sleazier aspects of early 1970s New York. Unlike the TP publication of Shaft: A Complicated Man, this book comes without any extras, such as an introduction, script extracts and character profiles, which is a shame. It is also a shame that Dynamite seem to have stalled on any new Shaft output – with as yet no commissioned third comic book or follow-up novel to Walker’s excellent Shaft’s Revenge. There is also no news of the continuation of the reprints of Tidyman’s originals. I hope the publisher has not lost interest in the series and that we see more Shaft output very soon.