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.|