Thursday, November 21, 2013

In Cars...


"I sat there without saying anything for about a mile. Just waiting. It wasn't just the cigarette smoke in this car, or the hot air from the heater, either. You could taste the trouble that had been going on between these two."
The Red Scarf - Gil Brewer

Dark Passage
Double Indemnity
Kiss Me Deadly
The Hitchhiker

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What the hell?

It's been a little while, but I have been busy.

After several years SO and I decided to leave South Korea. The time was right. I was fed up with having spare time, few responsibilities, and lots of spare cash in my pockets. So, after a 36 hour journey (never try to bring dogs to the bastard UK - just never) and a month of practical - not actual - homelessness, I have turned up in south London. And I'm a student to boot. Yay.

So now I have more spare time, fewer responsibilities, and no spare cash. And it's cold. And nobody in this damn country has any idea how to build insulated housing and then they charge 200x too much for a space almost big enough for me to stretch my feet out. Bastards.

London, eh?

Anyway, I'm still pretty busy with my master's degree, but I'll be posting reviews, views, and all things noirboiled, as often as I can.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? - Andrez Bergen

One by one, the superheroes that protect the city of Heropa are falling. Assassinations, apparent accidents, sabotage, a myriad of incidents have one thing in common: a cape - a superhero - is dead. Trouble is, that's against the rules. Everybody knows heroes can't die.
Meanwhile, in the real world...
Andrez Bergen steers us carefully through the layered reality of an Australian dystopic future mixed into a fantasy comic book past. Equal parts Stan Lee and Raymond Chandler, with Gibsonesque twirlings, this story could easily get away from a writer. But, lacking the visual framework of the comic books that it draws on for its own legends, Bergen eschews the grandstanding and instead focuses on the characters. The novel is full of empathy and emotion. After all, when you're not sure how real your world or your fate is, what else have got to rely on except your own sense of self, of right and wrong, love and hate, friendship and enmity? And of course, your chosen superpower.
Not that you have to be into comic books to enjoy this. Comics have always been more incidental in my life than a mainstay, and yet I still got most of the references, or at least understood them. Superhero fans certainly will enjoy it, but there's as much mystery, intrigue, and romance as there is action. And  Bergen does a great job in not only bringing the world to life, but also in toying with the conventions of pulp and comic book lore. When we do find ourselves out in the 'real world' it is insufferably grim and forbidding, neatly contrasted to the shiny newness of Heropa, where whole city blocks can be destroyed and repaired over night  - in true comic book fashion, consequences never last longer than a story arc. At least, not when things are working right.
It's very well done, and that he produces all this and still makes the pages turn is quite an achievement. The whole experience is bolstered with sketches and illustrations from a number of contributors around the world, adding to the comic feel of the story without distracting from its literary execution. And some of them are very fine indeed.
If anybody else is as inventive and bizarre as Andrez Bergen, then they aren't half as good a writer or everybody would know their name. In 'Who is Killing...' pulp fiction and comic book tradition are brought bang up to date and then slammed hard into the roots of their own mythology. Equal parts mystery, science fiction and comic book fantasy, it's a stylish, creative, noirish romp full of darkness and fun.
I don't know any other writer that could quite pull this off. Nobody else today writes with the same dark wit, style or mad creativity. Bergen is already making a name as a cult favourite, and this book deserves all of the plaudits that will undoubtedly be coming its way.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

QOTM: A Dance At The Slaughterhouse...

"What's a long time? I been here forty-two years. Can you believe that? Forty-two years in this shithole. Be forty-three years in September, but I expect to be out of here by then. Moved to smaller quarters." He laughed again and it turned into a coughing fit and he reached for the handkerchief. He got the cough under control and said, "Smaller quarters, like a box about six feet long, you know what I mean?"
"I guess it helps to joke about it."
"Naw, it don't help," he said. "Nothing helps."
A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1992) - Lawrence Block

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Hard Cold Shoulder - LA Sykes

If we get the heroes we deserve, then somebody has been a very bad boy. We're used to PIs with personal problems, but former police Detective Pitkin is about as dark as I've come across. To paraphrase Chandler, down these dark streets a man must walk, because he's the only man darker than the people he meets. Not that Pitkin is a bad guy, and his desperate search for some kind of purity grows more touching as more of his back story comes across. This is a good man gone to the depths of the world.

Since leaving the police force (and there's reference here to a previous appearance in Sykes' fiction) Pitkin has become anathema to his former colleagues, and untouchable to old friends. Set on the search for a missing girl - victim of a kidnap/extortion plot gone wrong - Pitkin battles against more than just the traditional set of bad guys. He also finds himself up against the entrenched apathy of a society where everybody has their own problems, and nobody can find much sympathy for one more sad case in a bleak landscape of self-interest and crushing austerity. Sykes touches on many themes familiar to readers of his short stories, and the novella is packed tight with emotional, psychopathical and sociological material. Add in some perversion, some guns and some tough guys, a couple of rough angels, and shake well.

Hard Cold Shoulder really is as hard and cold as promised. I couldn't give away any more about Pitkin without spoilers, but if you like fiction with edge, this is as edgy as it gets. Like a lot of classic noir, it has a distinctly psychological edge, but the prose and the action are all hardboiled: in a lean, tight story, there's no space for self-reflection. The reader, as with the hero, can only be propelled from one bad spot to the next. In a plot as grim and gritty as they come, Pitkin can only hope to survive to the end, and if he picks up a couple of scars on the way, they're nothing compared to the stains already apparent on his soul.

A surprisingly dark, thoughtful, action-filled, hard-boiled thriller with a heart as black as pitch. If you like dark fiction, this is it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Quick Review: Mr Suit - Nigel Bird

The writing is taut, the characters well drawn, and the dialogue sharp. Nigel Bird gets everything right, but the thing that makes this novella is the set-up. It's a great idea, and like a lot of good stories, Nigel knows to start writing at the point in the story that could already have spawned a novel.

A slight over-reaction from his boss sees London gangster Archie with a bullet in his brain. Didn't kill him, mind, just left him in a chair, paralysed from the neck down, only able to communicate in a series of tediously slow blinks. And thus our story starts...

Fortunately, Archie has his wife Liza to look after him. Unfortunately, with a bullet in the brain he's quite forgotten where he hid the money he collected right before the 'incident'. And, despite support from the repentant boss - the titular and wholly repugnant Mr Suit - quite how much longer Liza can put up with the situation is another question.

As bad luck turns to worse, Nigel Bird sends the unlikely couple careening across London, helped or impeded by their hapless children. Half comic and half tragic, the story is tight and well-written, and certainly lives up to the promise of the premise, if you see what I mean. It's less gritty than some of his other work, but Mr Suit is a wholly original take on the London crime scene. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 20, 2013

QOTM: The Avenger - Matthew Blood

Morgan Wayne: Every woman wants him,
every man wants to kill him. 

"He bent and touched his lips to her forehead, cooling now and glowing with the indefinable pallor of death. And as he did so he swore an oath that was not formed in words, but etched in acid on his soul. An oath that her killer would die by his hands, and soon. Derr's identity was his secret. It would remain his secret. Let the police discover her body in the natural course of events. Long before they could possibly get on the right trail, Morgan Wayne swore to himself she would be avenged."
 The Avenger (1952) - Matthew Blood

Seems that Matthew Blood was a pen name for Ryerson Johnson and David Dresser - more famous as Brett Halliday. A sequel (Death is a Lovely Dame) also appeared a couple of years later.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Quick Review: Through A Shattered Lens I Saw - LA Sykes

Brit Grit, with the emphasis on the latter, this collection showcases Manchester's own LA Sykes. His stories have been floating in the ether for a couple of years and anyone hanging around the likes of Shotgun Honey too long has probably come across one or two.

A kinder editor might have done more work on a couple of the older stories. While rough, they do show the seed of that which fruits later: nasty, sleazy, memorable characters in nasty, sleazy situations (usually of their own making); plotting with more labyrinthine twists and turns than you have a right to expect in such slender slivers of work; and a denseness, a heaviness to the work which will satisfy any discerning reader of British noir: there's no fluff here.

I hesitate to say, 'He's at his best when...' because of the variety of work on offer. And it's certainly a bumper fistfull for your dollar. 22 stories, many of them traditional shorts rather than flash length. But there are some wonderful little single scenes, character pieces that snapshot a moment, a feeling, or an entire life. A Little Con-Descending gives us a crime boss at the end of his useful life, while others give us the futility of the British mental health system (a subject close to Sykes' heart, it seems), with black humour - Famine and Pestilence at the Hospital Canteen and Cold Hard Fear stand out - or without - What the Heat Brings and Crossing the Line are as dark and unforgiving as anything coming out of Britain right now. Sykes brings a knowledge from the inside and an attitude that cannot be faked. He knows his shit and he's put it on paper for you. Unflinching.

There are some original takes on the confession story in the excellent (and funny) Red, Red, Wine and the claustrophobic Feeling It. We also, of course, have that Brit Grit staple, the bent copper. There are avenging coppers on the warpath, but you can be sure they're looking after their own interests. Diddler on the Roof brings a new perspective on monkeys and jumpers. Relevant perhaps to the ongoing horse meat scandal, but also relevant to the Uk's obsession with that awful, grim, grey land known as The 70s. A place which has somehow etched itself onto our collective psyche, but is here brought into the cold harsh daylight of the 21st century. And another standout story is the much longer The Gunchester Blues. Here, Sykes really gives himself room to cut loose and the result has more twists and turns than Alton Towers. As with any plot that relies on twists, it's the characters that make it work. Reminded me somewhat of Nigel Bird with a splash of Col Bury - high praise indeed. Sykes knows how to do the action and the violence, but he also knows that however hardboiled your writing, good noir relies on characters. And this is noir. There's a bleak core running through these stories, despite the occasional laugh out loud moment (Heart on the Sleeve is genuinely the darkest laugh I've had in a while). But we can only feel that bleak truth if we believe in the characters presented to us. With Sykes, we can.

Sykes pens excellent stand-alones, but given a bit of space he can really work. If Gunchester Blues makes something new of old ground - the bent cop and the dodgy dealer each looking to cut what they can from a length of promised cloth - Midnight Waltz is an experiment in style that is brave and, for the most part, delivered with some panache. This is a writer who has cut his chops against a variety of styles and backgrounds and succeeded with some room to spare. Given a little freedom there's no telling what he might pull off, but you can bet it'll be worth keeping an eye out for. This collection shows early promise and then delivers. Get in now while it's fresh, because there's more to come.

LA Sykes, yesterday.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Quick Review: Blood on Blood - Frank Zafiro & Jim Wilsky

Two brothers, one girl. Sounds like trouble?

Okay, now throw in some diamonds and a handful of mafiosi, a lot of muscle and a bunch of guns. And that’s just the start.

Half-brothers Mick and Jerzy don’t have a lot in common. Mick is an ex-cop, a tainted hero looking for redemption. Jerzy is a career criminal with some bad friends and worse enemies. Thrown into the middle of a turf war, he needs a way out of Chicago – with the enigmatic Ania in tow.

About the only thing that connects them is their father, and before he breathes his last in a prison hospital, he leaves them one last gift: a coded clue to the whereabouts of diamonds that went missing after a heist he was involved in years ago.

But just recounting the plot doesn’t do justice to the breathless action of Blood on Blood. You know the old writer’s saying: start with the protagonist in trouble and then heap on the grief. That’s exactly what happens as things start bad and rumble downhill like a runaway train. The twists and turns are many, but clear and credible. This thriller never gets beyond itself, but stays close and personal; a gritty, claustrophobic read that grips and doesn’t let go.

I especially liked the way the two authors handle a dual (and dueling) 1st person perspective. As the chapters flip between brothers, the twin viewpoints reveal their flaws, their egos, their mistakes, overreactions and underplayed hands. It’s cleverly done so that two voices add up to more than the sum of their parts. It’s at least as interesting for this as for the intense action and emotion that is given to the two main parties: both of which are compelling, believable and rounded. With the mysterious Ania bouncing between them and throwing around red herrings like feeding time at the penguin pool, and it’s a great little cast.

The close atmosphere of noir, with the pace and page-turnability (?) of an A-list thriller. Another good read from Snubnose Press.

Friday, April 19, 2013

QotM: American Gods - Neil Gaiman

Everybody’s got a list, right? No, I don’t mean a shitlist, or the list that was in that episode of friends (Audrey Tautou and Kylie Minogue, two and a half times each). And I don’t mean a bucket list. Just a list of (mostly) realistic things that you fully intend to get around to doing in some ill-imagined future perfect life, when you finally get your shit together. Like that book you always forget to remember to finally read, as you have done for the last ten years.

Anyway, here’s a small portion of mine. I’m sure yours looks something similar:

  • Read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods
  • Visit Budapest
  • Live in NYC
  • Find out who Charlemagne was
  • Ditto the Brady Bunch
  • Learn the words to Adestes Fidelis
  • Make a film
  • Eat more fish
  • Inspire a Tom Wait’s song
  • Watch a 6 Nations game at each of the home grounds in one season
  • Sober up
  • Watch Raging Bull
  • Get into jazz, man

I’ve been ticking quite a few things off my list in the last couple of years. Wrote some books, learned the words to Jerusalem, and have got half my head around quantum physics (not the math bit). I even spent last winter boning up on jazz, although I need more time on that. And there’s a ten percent chance I’ll be in New York for a while in the next couple of years.

And finally, finally, I am reading American Gods.

Quote of the Moment: 
“I’ll tell you something,” he said, as if he had said nothing that day. “You’re walking on gallows ground, and there’s a rope around your neck and a raven-bird on each shoulder waiting for your eyes, and the gallows tree has deep roots, for it stretches from heaven to hell, and our world is only the branch from which the rope is swinging.” He stopped. “I’ll rest here a spell,” he said, touching down, his back resting against the black brickwork. 
“Good luck,” said Shadow. 
“Hell, I’m fucked,” said Mad Sweeney. “Whatever. Thanks.”

 American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’m halfway through, and then it’ll be one more thing ticked off. After that I think I’ll google Charlemagne.

And, yes, Raging Bull. I know.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Quick Review: The Hawthorne Series - Heath Lowrance

I’ve never been big on westerns. I mean, sure there are some great western movies – the man with no name films, the Django series, Magnificent Seven, etc. But I only like these because they’re great movies. I would never anticipate a movie purely because it’s a western. Not in the same way that I would watch a film noir, a sci-fi, or a horror, just because I like the genre. And I’ve never thought about picking up a western book.

Until Hawthorne. Because it’s Heath Lowrance, because it fuses southern gothic, horror, and westerns into one big unholy mess, and just because it sounds like a great idea. At least, that’s why I read the first one, That Damned Coyote Hill.

I read the others because the first one is so damned good.

Here’s the thing, though. Yes, the taciturn anti-hero with the cross-shaped scar on his forehead is a fantastic character. Yes, the plots, the characters and the action kept me hooked. And yes, the brooding atmosphere, dark and fearful, full of unseen menace and suspense, is fantastically executed. All these things make them good stories. But where Lowrance gets clever is this: He had a great idea, and he’s not telling you what it is.

Most writers have a great idea for a story, or a character, or a set up, and they write it down. They put it all in the story. In the Hawthorne books, the thing that really elevates them is what the author isn’t saying. He’s not going to explain anything - not about Hawthorne, and not about the evils he faces down. Most importantly he’s just going to keep up the atmosphere, the tension, and the unholy creeping fear that stains every page. Hawthorne may be a great character, but we keep dragging along with him because, just like Hawthorne, we don’t understand the world in which he works. It’s a world full of unexplained horrors, and like Hawthorne we can only face these one at a time. The pace of the story doesn’t allow Hawthorne to ask any questions, so we don’t get any answers.

It’s something Lowrance does well. Ben over at Dead End Follies puts it this way: "What Heath Lowrance nailed that most writers failed at is to create the strong-silent, mysterious type properly. Most authors feel obligated to weigh down their tough guy with a weepy backstory of murder, helplessness and revenge, in the name of character development. There is none of that to Hawthorne... Giving his stories such a lean diet of emotional content, Lowrance frees the space to write some really impressive stuff. There is always a part of the setting that's a character itself.

Then again, maybe there’s no great idea behind it. As Heath commented about writing the first story, Hawthorne is “on a mission to seek out and destroy evil wherever he finds it. Why? I didn’t know at the time, but it didn’t really matter.”

And perhaps it doesn’t matter, so long as the stories keep coming. The second book, The Long Black Train (my favourite so far) answers no questions. In fact it keeps adding to the mysteries about the man and the dark things that inhabit his world. Superbly executed, it’s full of gore, but Lowrance is smart enough to know how to use the blood. It doesn’t fulfill the set up, only adds to it. And the third, The Spider Tribe, has one of the most disgusting, grisly creatures I’ve come across in a long time. A visceral, biological, Cronenburg-like terror. More questions are asked than answered, but that’s the great thing about the format. The stories are long enough to be complete, and to keep adding to the mystery. But they’re also short enough to avoid any kind of filler. We don’t need the character padded out, because both the protagonist and the stories are as much about the world we don’t see as the world we do. That’s what keeps the brooding, menacing atmosphere so strong. We like the unexplained just as it is.

And the stories do keep coming. Sure, eventually we’ll need more. Word is there are some old tales come to light in the latest installment. And there you go, one reason I like these stories is because Heath is so sparing with the back story, and yet I can’t wait to find out more. But not too much more, not too soon. As long as there are unanswered questions, as long as some things remain unexplained and mysterious, then there's scope for more Hawthorne books.

The fourth story, Bad Sanctuary, is out now from Beat to a Pulp. It’ll be on my Kindle very soon. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

QOTM: Nightfall by David Goodis

Quote of the Moment:

And the quiet went on. And Vanning had the gun aimed at John's face, the gun heavy in his hand, the gun seeming to gain weight with every passing second of that dismal quiet.
The quiet went on.
Finally John said, "I don't figure this. I've been trying but I can't figure it nohow."

Nightfall by David Goodis (1947)

Image from Le Samourai (1967) 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Quick Review: Saturday's Child by Ray Banks

The first novel in the Cal Innes series opens with Innes out of jail and trying to stay out of trouble.

That, of course, is not about to happen.

He's playing at being a PI, or at least doing people favours for money. When local ganglord Morris Tiernan pressures him to repay an old 'favour', all he wants is Tiernan off his back for good, so he agrees to help track down a large sum of missing money and the croupier who took it. But with Tiernan's psychotic son as the oversized monkey on his back and more than just money at stake, Innes finds himself in the middle of family business that some people don't want out in the open.

Innes starts out pretty fucked up and things only get worse from there, especially when he finds himself in Newcastle. This short novel is packed with violence, stolen cash, more violence, bad decisions, family secrets and revenge by the shovel load. Mix in some drugs and thugs and it's a fast ride that just won't stop punching you in the face. Innes is a down and dirty modern PI that updates the classic mold, while keeping the hardboiled loser essence. And Ray Banks is one of the darkest, grittiest crime writers around. Trust me, nobody writes a fucked-up character like Banks.

Highly Recommended.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

In the deep midwinter...

Now then, where was I?

Well, winter has been long and hard and cold and busy. Tremendously busy and cold. And even though it's warmed a little in the last week, ice still hangs around like a persistant party guest when all the kindly host wants is a cup of tea and bed, and there may well be more snow before the end of the month.

I have however been busy in the background, beavering away and putting in the hard yards of writing. Nothing that you're likely to see very soon, but the kind of hard work which will hopefully put me in a better place tomorrow. Whenever she appears.

And of course, I've been reading. So in the interim to intermediate, look for some very short reviews of my favorites that I've been sipping my hot cocoa to on those long, dark, icy evenings. I meant to get started on this a long time ago, but I'm a right lazy bastard. So now I'm promising publicly: first one tomorrow.

AND, I've started an online course about film noir, which is very interesting and exciting. My noir viewing has always been patchy, so I'm using it as an excuse to fill in some gaps at the same time. This weekend I shall be watching Double Indemnity for perhaps the millionth time, and then The Lady from Shanghai, which I've bizarely never seen.

Ok. That's it.