Someone once said that time flies like an arrow. They lied. Time ducks and dives like a boxer on the ropes.
Anyway, no sooner (so I thought) had I finished one Paul Brazill collection when along comes another. Can't be ignoring that, I thought. And I don't want to be one whole collection behind the times. I know, I thought. Why not review them both together?
"After enduring forty-five years of a marriage that was, at best, like wading through treacle, Oliver Robinson eventually had enough and smothered his wife with the beige corduroy cushion that he'd accidentally burned with a cigarette two fraught days before."
So opens Snapshots, with death. And, truth be told, there is a lot of death in each of these collections. What we find in Snapshots is prime examples of one of Brazill's skills as a writer. The reader is immediately supplanted into the scene and mindset of the primary character. We see the world through their eyes, follow their choices and take the consequences. I don't know many other authors who can so quickly and effectively make us feel the stories behind the stories. He is a master at the detailed turn of phrase, the little things that turn reading into an experience.
Many of them are literally flashes: stories like Warsaw Ghosts, White Ink, and the short revenge tale Donkey (surely not even 500 words) are moments of a greater whole, caught in the first big hits of lightning as the storm finally breaks overhead. Of course, much of Snapshots is very short or flash fiction. Dark, bitter, pained, grimy. Each story is noir to the core. Inevitable, no matter how we struggle. What varies are the characters, the situations, the settings. But one thing you know: a Paul Brazill story ends badly for someone.
In Snapshots Brazill creates the maximum from a minimum of words. 13 Shots of Noir contains more conventional short stories, and allows the writer to show off his full arsenal, so to speak. Not only can he effortlessly place you in a scene, but he can skip through weeks, months or even years with a well placed phrase, and make you feel the weight of that time upon your shoulders. The situations and plots are allowed more time to develop, but the characters are as in your face as ever. Reading the flash fiction of Snapshots would convince you that this was a talented writer who had a few useful tricks up his sleeve. Reading 13 Shots shows that he's got the whole bag of tricks at his disposal: he'll dazzle you with character, only to sucker punch you with plot; or else he'll lay out the plot up front, in order to suck you down with the character. And he can do it in more ways than you can imagine.
But I don't want to suggest he's only a skilled craftsman. That's just the tool he uses to show what really matters, a genuine and affectionate portrait of every kind of fuck-up, every tender sacrifice, every last tired wheeze of an old man. It's the content that makes it, in sad little tales such as The Friend Catcher or The Ballad of the Kid, creepy vignettes like M, or classic Brit Grit dark humour like Sins of the Father and Everyday People. There are a range of stories here, but every one of them has seen an honest and complete commitment from the writer; there's nothing half-hearted, nothing half-arsed.
There is a third part to these 2 collections. Snapshots also contains stories from Brit Grit, the collection previously published by The E-Press Who Shall Not Be Named. Re-reading these stories was a delight. There is more humour in these early stories, a black, bleak, British humour true, but genuinely funny at times. These are exactly the kind of stories that exemplify the current Brit Grit movement, and Brazill definitely withstands re-reading.
Amongst his writing one thing stands out. The prose is hard-boiled, and noir, and essentially British, and has a consistency whatever the tone of the piece. In many ways it is the definition of Brit Grit (however you want to define that). But I don't think there is one stylistic quality that you can pin down as being the hallmark of Paul Brazill. And I mean this as a good thing. Paul Brazill is an author dedicated entirely to the authenticity of his characters. We live and breathe with these characters. If it doesn't fit, it isn't in there.
And this brings us finally to the little Brazillisms. There is no overbearing author's voice, but there are elements that continually crop up. Certain characters, of course, but more than that are the repeated turns of phrase, locations, and of course the musical references. What I love about these are that they aren't added for cool effect, because that would be an intrusion of the author. Instead, for people of a certain age, the songs are simply part of the fabric of living in Britain. From Showaddywaddy, through the Ramones and Madonna, the Clash and Gladys Knight and more, this is part of the aural reality of living in the UK over the last thirty years or more. Rather than showing off how cool he is (something that always drags me out of a story) and more like the radio playing a current hit in Eastenders, Brazill's musical references help to draw us into a reality we have all lived through. Just, with more dead people.
And then there are the other things. Spit on a hot pavement, Booze N News, the Polish toast Na Zdrowia, the colour blue, and more. They crop up again and again. In less skillful hands this could be grating, but instead they fit easily into the texture of Brazill World, creating a seamless fabric that encompasses useless boozehounds, real-world PIs, fuck-up cokeheads, innocent murderers and murderous innocents, as well as the odd step into the supernatural realm.
The two collections between them contain what are possibly his most famous stories, Drunk On The Moon, the starting point of the werewolf PI series, and Guns of Brixton. With these, they feel somehow complete. Or, to be more precise, these two collections feel like Paul Brazill so far, the slate wiped clean ready for something new. I can't wait.
If you're new to Paul D Brazill, I humbly suggest you start with Snapshots. Then again, tomorrow I'd probably say start with 13 Shots. Both are highly recommended.