Posts Tagged ‘noir’

Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis

April 1, 2014 1 comment


Every year as a young man, what seemed to me a massive travelling fair came to the Town Moor, a large area of common ground in the city close to where I used to live. In the best tradition of the American midway translated to northern England, we could walk up and down lines of tents offering everything from mutant animals to bearded ladies, from flea circuses to illusionists (actually the same thing, only on a different scale of deception). Among the more interesting were the booths offering a boxing challenge. The professional fighters took on all-comers in sequence. Anyone who could last three rounds, won a prize. In all the years I watched these fights, I never saw any of the professionals lose, although there were men who boxed in the armed forces who could give the professionals a run for their money. My reaction to Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis (Tor, 2013) produces a comparable reaction. Just as I watched local men being beaten by visiting professionals, I feel I’ve just been beaten to a pulp by this book.

Yes, this is the second book of the year I’ve thrown back in the box after reading about half. It’s gumshoe vs. God, the best of three falls, three submissions or a knockout to decide the winner. The publishers seem to have decided the American market is a sucker for Christian-oriented fantasy mayhem with angels and other celestial folk getting into a lather about something important to them. In this case, the hook on which the book is predicated is that the Archangel Gabriel has been murdered. Pausing for a moment, it’s one of these paradoxical ideas that doesn’t quite work. This is one of the original group in on the Creation. In theory, he’s an immortal being, yet the book begins with him burning up in Earth’s atmosphere as his dead body is reduced to ashes (I’m not sure how the body became sufficiently corporeal to experience friction falling through the atmosphere, but this is one of the many things not dreamt of in my philosophy). Now perhaps, yes perhaps, something could have been made of this if the author had decided on an appropriate style or tone for the prose. Richard Kadrey, for example, goes for a fairly noirish contemporary style which works quite well. Tregillis attempts to conflate two relatively incompatible styles.

Ian Tregillis

Ian Tregillis

It seems he likes Chandler, Hammett, et al because half the prose is either a homage or pastiche depending on how polite you want to be. Well, that may be jake for you as you sip your java, but it rapidly grows tiresome. The other half is heightened fantasy speak with contemporary sensibilities and complexity deeply encoded in the vocabulary and syntax. To me, this produces a jarring mess. There are also big concept, quasi-SFnal ideas about the nature of reality and how consistency can be maintained when major events like the death of a founder member of the Universe occurs. Yes, everything is kept safe and secure when the choir all sing from the same hymn sheet and don’t blow the Jericho trumpet until the fat lady sings (or something). Frankly, this is arrant rubbish to me.

I amuses me to briefly cast around online and look at other reviews. There seems some unanimity this book is a masterpiece. Well, I’m used to being out on my own. Perhaps my atheism is getting in the way. Perhaps my advanced age means I can no longer relate to the tropes appealing to the young. Who knows. All I can say is that you should approach Something More Than Night with great caution. Ask yourself whether you want a 1940’s style Philip Marlowe acting the part of an angel in a crossbreed SF/fantasy about conflict in the celestial realm spilling over into Earth’s mundane environment. You never know. You may think this is one of the best books of 2013.

For reviews of books by Ian Tregillis, see:
Bitter Seeds
The Coldest War
Necessary Evil.

Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton

March 18, 2014 1 comment

Sergeant Chip by Bradely Denton

One of the most interesting aspects of reviewing at such volume is the sudden opportunity to notice coincidences — all the more ironic because one of the features in fiction that I find most aggravating is the coincidence, e.g. that instead of a plot developing along organic and natural lines, everything is structured in a way that events just happen to occur in the order necessary to achieve the desired effect. When this is woefully contrived, I happily leap on the improbability of the coincidence and deride the author for being a force of destiny. Well, a month or so ago, I reviewed a book with a dog as the protagonist and ruminated on the scarcity of first-person narratives featuring animals. In retrospect, this is a good thing because authors routinely fall into the trap of overly sentimentalising the way in which the animals are portrayed.

Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a set of three novellas, the titular story being about a poodle/labrador cross (the story was nominated for the 2005 Hugo Award and won the 2005 Sturgeon Award). We’re in the field of animal uplift for military purposes. Cognitive enhancement is a topic not uncommon in science fiction and medical thrillers (and animation blockbusters like Muntz’ dogs in Up). In this instance, we humans have been manipulating dogs for land use, and sealions and dolphins for use at sea. The most effective teams arise when the humans have real empathy for the animals. We ride with Chip and his human handler, Lieutenant Dial, who prove very good in the field, both for pubic demonstration purposes and when confronting the “enemy”. Thematically, this is a story about loyalty and the ethics of leadership. Because the dog is the point of view, we get to see multiple levels of duty in action. It starts with the relationship between the dog and his handler, moves up to the relationship between Dial, now promoted to Captain, and those under his command. And then spreads to look at the relationship between invading troops and unarmed civilians. Needless to say, the story doesn’t show the human side in a very good light apart from Dial, but each individual has his or her own rights and interests to protect with everything told in an unaffected prose with a clear eye for more objective values. This is an outstanding story.

Bradley Denton

Bradley Denton

“Blackburn and the Blade” was nominated for the International Horror Guild Award and shows us a series character coming into a small town to regroup, re-equip and prepare to move on again. Except coming into a new environment often means meeting new people. At times, they can prove a dangerous distraction, introducing unexpected enemies. This is most elegantly put together, giving us a clear sight of all the relevant characters and mentioning the murder just before our “hero” came to town. Once we know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s time for the murderer to reappear. Fortunately, there’s a celestial conjunction — now that’s what a proper coincidence looks like when you’re writing a noir supernatural thriller.

“The Adakian Eagle” was a nominee for the Edgar and, as that would suggest, it’s a superb story featuring an ageing Dashiell Hammett on manoeuvres in WWII. American troops found themselves in some interesting places when fighting the Japanese and this takes us to the Aleutian Islands in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. Not only are they remote, but also volcanic and prone to rain. Once the Japanese had been defeated on Attu, the islands became a vital supply depot for the Russian campaign. This assistance to the Commies was somewhat ironic at the time and became even more so when the permafrost of the Cold War set in and the McCarthy backlash came to fruition. During the war, the cultural hostility is nicely captured here in the relationship between the Lieutenant Colonel and Dashiell Hammett, with the customary racial prejudice and contempt for those considered less intelligent also on display.

The story explores two convergent forces. The first we may call a belief in the potential of the supernatural to affect events in the real world. The second is the determination of an older and more experienced man to cut through the bullshit and do whatever is required to protect himself and anyone else who has fallen under his protection. The result is strictly speaking an investigation of a suspicious death on the side of one of the volcanos, but the influence of belief in the supernatural is immanent, providing a key element in both the short and longer term motivation for events. It should be said the other element in the motive is elegantly revealed as one of the more traditional and all too human desires. In the short term, the forces balance each other out — to that extent, everyone gets what they deserve. In the long term, history stays on track which is as it should be.

Bradley Denton is new to me but these three novellas convince me I really should take the time to track down more of his work. That means this collection has served its purpose and introduced an author whose range and diversity is worth exploring. Thank you Subterranean Press.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Ask Not by Max Allan Collins

March 6, 2014 6 comments


Ask Not by Max Allan Collins (Forge, 2013) (Nathan Heller Mystery 17) If you look back over the last fifty years, the most talked about event in conspiracy circles has been the JFK assassination. Over the years, everyone and his/her dog has had a theory about who might really have been behind the killing and why. So here we have a well-researched book with guest appearances from Bobby Kennedy, Jack Ruby, Jim Garrison and others. It begins with what most people take to be the agreed facts and then spins the author’s own interpretation on top. Frankly, I’m not really into the mythology of this sad incident. It comes of being born and raised on the other side of the Pond. I remember the British current events satire show called That Was the Week That Was, devoted all its running time to a commentary and tribute to JFK but, in 1963, it was just one more thing in a busy world to think about. To Americans, of course, it came as a shock that someone would be bold enough to kill the President in such a public way. Alongside the assassination of William McKinley, the combined shock effect was the equivalent of this century’s 9/11, scarring the psyche of America.


This is the final book in the JFK trilogy sequence of Heller novels and short story collections, and a direct sequel to Target Lancer. It starts in September 1964 immediately after a concert given by the Beatles. As Heller, the PI to the stars, and his sixteen-year-old son are crossing a Chicago street, a Cuban tries to run them down. The PI knows this man was involved in an attempt on JFK’s life in Chicago three weeks before Dallas and may also have been involved in “Operation Mongoose”, the failed attempt by the CIA, Cuban exiles and the mob to take down Fidel Castro. Since there are a number of reasons why interested parties would have a motive for killing him, Heller spends his money to place protection for his ex-wife and son, and begins to research who might be behind the attempted hit.

Max Allen Collins

Max Allan Collins


So what we have here is a PI novel which is playing the true crime game in a historical mystery format. I confess a lot of the history was completely new to be. Blame thousands of miles and a lack of motivation for my ignorance. I therefore have no idea how much of the content is rehashing what’s already in the common domain. All I can say is that, after a while, I thought the facts rather drowned out the action. If I’m going to sit down with a PI novel boasting potentially noir overtones, then that’s what I want. I felt this was trying too hard to fit into the straightjacket of history. Yes, there are no doubt some wildly speculative bits in there, but I neither know nor really care where the facts stop and the fiction begins. This has the assassination and the Warren Commission’s botched attempt to clarify matters as the backdrop. There are a surprising number of bodies. The majority are probably victims of a clean-up squad which is touring the country eliminating those who might be able to disturb the cover-story of a lone gunman. Assuming this to be a true recital of the number of deaths, it’s a sad indictment of the willingness of the powerful to sacrifice the innocent. Towards the end, there are other victims who more immediately surround our hero and may be killed because of his investigation. Heller joins forces with journalist Flo Kilgore, a fictionalized version of Dorothy Kilgallen (1913–1965). As the date shows, she also died in the real world while investigating the assassination.


I wanted to like this. The writing style is engaging and when we’re purely into fictional PI novel territory, the effect is very pleasing. But I felt submerged in factual information, much of which was not directly advancing the fictional PI story being told. Background which tends to suggest conspiracy and cover-up has a particular interest to those who want to consider whether the alleged conspiracy is real. PI novel readers want to see their hero fight his way through to the end and beat the bad guy. Because no-one actually knows the “truth”, there can’t be a convenient “Heller catches the bad guy” ending. The best he can do is survive. So Ask Not is less satisfying as fiction and too heavy on real-world history for a Brit like me.


The the review of another book by Max Allan Collins, see Supreme Justice.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


A Nasty Piece of Work by Robert Littell

January 16, 2014 Leave a comment


A Nasty Piece of Work by Robert Littell (Thomas Dune, 2013) takes us on a stylistic journey back to a slightly more innocent time of PI noir. In my early years when pulp was king, there was always room for a wise-guy approach to writing supposedly hardboiled stories of men who fell for the dames who came in as clients and then found themselves up to their necks in trouble. Almost without exception, they all had military or police backgrounds, and were recovering from a usually undisclosed tragedy of some kind. This justified a permanently world-weary outlook and a laconic approach to conversation. What made all these stories, both short and long, so satisfying was the wit in the telling. No matter how dire the situation, there was always the chance of a smile before the satisfactory outcome was achieved. These men would walk down the mean streets and do what they had to do to save the dame and stay out of jail.

So here were have Lemuel Gunn. To conform to the stereotype, he was a homicide detective in New Jersey who found himself out in Afghanistan as a CIA operative. Under normal circumstances, this might have passed off without incident but, as is always the way, his code of honour was out of joint with the army times. His contribution to the reports passing up the chain of command was not appreciated when he reported a minor massacre by US troops. No-one in Washington likes a whistleblower. This left him out of a job without a termination bonus and no pension. His natural response was to acquire a PI license and take up residence in a period trailer down in New Mexico. This allows him to lead the life of a loner, getting infrequent clients through word-of-mouth recommendation. He charges $95 a day plus expenses and refuses to bill unless the client is satisfied. Yes, this is the private eye role as a hobby.

Robert Littell

Robert Littell

Intruding on his impecunious but peaceful existence comes Ornella Neppi. She was helping out her uncle, who runs a bailbond business and, because she failed to make even the basic checks on a property title offered as security, they may be out $125,000 as a client seems to have disappeared. What makes this sufficiently interesting to persuade our hero into action is the disappearance of all the photographs of this potential criminal (innocent until proven guilty). This is a good trick. When it appears the same man may have engineered his own arrest, the hook is set and, like a fish pulled hither and thither through the ocean currents, our hero must struggle on through the maze until he closes in on the prize at the centre.

As a sample of the PI genre, this ticks all the right boxes and has a well-practiced air about it. For the record, this is Littell’s seventeenth novel so he’s no slouch when it comes to putting a good plot together. As is also required, Gunn is a good all-round performer whether he’s demonstrating sang froid while being warned off by professionals or he’s suggesting to an opponent he might have anger management problems. It’s a nicely put together package. I have only the one reservation which stems from the comments made in the opening paragraph.

Looking at the text, the best way to describe the style is Chandleresque. Now don’t get me wrong. I have very happy memories of reading all the major writers of the pulp era (and many of the also-rans). In those days, I was a fairly indiscriminate reader. But when confronted by a wall of prose in the style of Chandler I found it grew slightly monotonous. Yes, there’s considerable wit on display. I smiled every now and then in the early chapters. There’s a sense of fun about it all. But. . . I think Littell is trying too hard. It would have been better if he’d written in a more modern style with flourishes harking back to iconic writers of the past. So just as he’s updated the sex, i.e. actual sexual activity occurs rather than merely being a possibility in the 1930s and 40s originals, the general plot would have sufficed as a launching pad for adventures in the style of Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, et al.

Gunn is a hero who plots a course by his own compass of values. He has no interest in operating as a cog in the military-industrial complex. He asserts his individuality no matter what the cost. Fortunately, in this book he meets some police and FBI officers who have a similar world view. Collectively, they produce results outside the system because they think that promotes more abstract principles of justice. They don’t care what their bosses might think. In this respect, Littell is actually harking back to the iconic cowboy tradition of the rugged, self-sufficient individuals who lived by their own code and built modern America without waiting for the moneymen “back East” to get into the action. In theory today, we have a society in which everyone is expected to conform to the values imbued by the moneymen. We work for large corporations on their terms. Trade unions and other forms of collective action are marginalised. The moneymen hope they have built a society which is too complicated and does not permit the loner to prosper. Except when people around you are unpredictable, the survivor solves each problem as it is presented to him, limited only by his own conscience. The tough individual can still prosper but it takes a different form of courage to prevail. What’s interesting about the outcome in this novel is that our hero rediscovers the old truth that some people don’t come equipped with the ability to compromise. For better or worse, they are what they are. So A Nasty Piece of Work is a very professionally put together package and, if you like the classic PI novel style, this is very much your kind of book. Indeed, younger readers who have never encountered any pulp may well find this highly entertaining.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus

December 6, 2013 Leave a comment


I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus (Apex Publications, 2013) Apex Voices: Book 2 gives me pause for a slightly nonstandard reason. Some years ago, I ran my own small press. For reasons which need not concern us here, it was not a great success but, rightly or wrongly, I believed in the authors and their books. It would not have occurred to me to publish something that I thought poor or second-rate. I note with some degree of derision, the emergence of a new breed of small press publisher who sees crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo as removing the risk from their decision-making. Instead of backing their own judgement with their own money, they raise the necessary cash from future customers. This does not apply to Apex Publications. They have the confidence to put their own capital at risk. My apologies. I’m diverting from my theme. This collection of two stories from Maurice Broaddus contains a somewhat ironic pair of effusive panegyrics as to the author’s worth. Why ironic? Because the shorter piece is titled, “Pimp My Airship” and these two prefatory pages are implicitly titled, “Pimp My Author”.

Anyway, this excess takes nothing away from the actual quality of the two stories, the first of which is the longer “I Can Transform You”. We’re immediately pitched into a noir science fiction police procedural in which Mac Peterson, an on/off police detective is called in when his ex-partner has taken a dive off one of the tallest buildings in the neighbourhood. Like Icarus, she did not make a soft landing. Sadly, she’s one of a growing number of people who have taken their leave of the world by this extravagant swan-diving and no-one has been able to come up with a convincing explanation for this aberrant suicidal gesture. His boss, Hollander, introduces our hero to Detective Ade Walter who’s to take lead on this case. On top of the building, there are signs of a struggle and she has trace amounts of DNA under her nails suggesting defensive action on her part. This sets the plot in motion.

Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus

Mac is, of course, a man with a past. He was ousted from his role as a full-time detective because he busted a ring of paedophiles with connections to the rich and powerful. He’s retreated into the demimonde as a problem-solver or PI if you want to dignify what he does for cash to fuel his increasing dependence on the drug called Stim. Just about holding himself together, he sets off to ask questions of the “gang” of desperate homeless people who had connections to this latest “suicide”. As a piece of noir science fiction, it’s similar to Michael Shean’s Shadow of a Dead Star and the rather better Bone Wires. In this type of story, our hero finds himself forced to work outside the formalised law enforcement structure in a world suffering environmental damage to investigate the activities of a shadowy “organisation”. He may or may not be augmented or, as in Guy Haley’s Omega Point, he may have a cyborg as a friend. As a basic plot, it’s not very original. What saves this version to some extent is the quality of the characterisation. There’s some heft to the protagonist but, in comparison to Clean by Alex Hughes which also deals with a consultant to the police (he’s a telepath) struggling with addiction in a future noir dystopia, Broaddus is a little thin.

The shorter “Pimp My Airship” is a political steampunk allegory in which the American revolution failed and Britain retained control. The colony prospered by exploiting the free labour force and building on the backs of the slaves. The status quo of corruption and racism would have continued, filling the coffers of the British masters, but for the arrival of automation. Since machines, once deployed, are easier to manage than slaves, the newly redundant were ghettoised and left to their own devices (sic). Pacification through opium was the norm, with imprisonment for any who chose to speak out against the racial oppression. This story sees a very public blow being struck for the practical emancipation of the ex-slaves. It initially requires a group to be freed from imprisonment rather along the lines of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille. For this purpose, an airship is required. The Afronauts fly to their destiny and the appropriately named “Sleepy” must decide where his loyalties lie.

In the confines of a short story, it’s a challenge to develop beyond broad brush strokes. The problem with this particular vehicle for mirroring modern racial discrimination is the lack of an economic context. In contemporary America, the racially oppressed groups are maintained in a state of dependence with just enough earning capacity to sustain life, doing the work the racially advantaged consider beneath their dignity. In time, this will change as the better paid jobs dry up and the bare subsistence jobs are all that are left. But for now, the potential for revolution is lacking. The oppressed have been brainwashed into apathy, convinced they are powerless to effect change. In this story, there are no low paid jobs for the poor to fight over. They have been condemned to slum wastelands. So who feeds them and provides shelter from the elements? If automation replaces all the low-pay, no-pay jobs, the elite should be thinking in terms of eugenics and a final solution, rather than picking up a bill for charitable works and free opium for all (cf “This Peaceable Land” by Robert Charles Wilson).

I might have thought these two stories published as I Can Transform You rather better if the book had begun without the broadside of unrelenting praise. Having raised expectations with a concerted sales puff of epic proportions, the actual stories were almost bound to disappoint. In American terms, the politics underpinning both stories is probably quite edgy. In European terms, it’s superficial and unchallenging. Though the writing style is above average, the substance is lacking for a European reader like me. Perhaps American readers will find more grist.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill

November 21, 2013 Leave a comment

The Summer of Dead Toys

Recently, I was reading an article about Anthea Bell who, for me, remains one of the best translators of all time. In this, I’m not relying simply upon the magnificence of her work on the Asterix series, but reflecting on a career spent in service to authors and readers equally. In her usual self-deprecating way, she’s always insisted the translator should be invisible, but that allows people to misunderstand the reality of the role. What she means is that the work of translation should not be apparent to the readers. Their experience should be indistinguishable from a book originally written in English. That means something rather more than literally translating the words used by the author. Too often this results in odd vocabulary choices and strange grammatical structures. The natural language translator should creatively attempt to capture the spirit of the author’s intention, and express that in the “foreign” language. At times, this will mean slightly adapting the text to reflect local cultural expectations. In this process, a balance must be struck between fidelity to the original text and the need for people to be comfortable reading the text in the target language.

My reason for starting in this way is my sense the translation of The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill (Crown Publishing, 2013) which is credited to Laura McGloughlin, is not as good as it might be. Although I have an acquired flexibility to reading more or less anything put in front of me, this feels wooden at times. I found the use of language slightly distracting. This is unfortunate because the plot is a good example of a subgenre growing in popularity. If we’re going to play the game of labels, I suppose we have to consider this Iberian or, more generally, Mediterranean noir. That means we’re dealing with the darker content of trafficking, child abuse, and so on, but some distance from the more traditional Scandinavia. I’m not against the use of these themes. Books benefit from greater realism and social awareness. We would be foolish if, as a society, we only wanted to read about contemporary events through rose-tinted spectacles. Without some degree of outrage at the treatment of women, an alarming number of whom are forced into the sex trade, how can the behaviour of our men in buying their services ever be brought under control? Similarly, without discussing the mistreatment of children, how can parents and authority figures be persuaded to improve their behaviour?

So we start with Inspector Hector Salgado being forced to sit on the bench for a month after savagely beating a man allegedly involved in the trafficking business. Righteous indignation and anger are a necessary part of any serious detective’s character in noir fiction. Naturally, there are hidden secrets in the man’s past which explain his particular horror over the mistreatment of the young and women. To emphasise his different qualities, he’s actually an Argentinian who, as a young man, was sent to Spain to complete his education and elected to stay on. While he’s almost completely assimilated into the culture of his adoptive city Barcelona, he retains some degree of objectivity about that culture. With comparative experience, he’s better placed than locals to see strengths and weaknesses in Catalan society. To complete his profile, his wife has left him for another woman. With both Argentinian and Spanish culture based on machismo, this betrayal and subsequent events were more than usually provocative and, in part, the stressors which triggered his violent attack on the arrested trafficker.

Antonio Hill

Antonio Hill

To ease him back into the department, Superintendent Savall gives him a slightly unofficial case to investigate. The Superintendent knows the woman whose son has died and some of the family’s history. He feels morally obliged to be seen to do something. With our hero being acknowledged as tenacious, he’s the right man to decide whether there’s anything suspicious about a young man’s fall from a top storey window. To help, he’s allocated Agent Leire Castro, a rookie who comes with high marks from the training academy. Together they set off into the hinterland of the wealthy which naturally guards its secrets. Meanwhile Sergeant Martina Andreu continues to deal with the fallout from our hero’s assault. She’s not supposed to talk to our hero but, as is usually the case with police departments, there are strong ties of loyalty between the team members and they are soon forced to confront a difficult development.

The two investigations move forward to successful conclusions and the ending is set up for the sequel which has been published in Spain. There are a number of problems. The dynamic for the potential suicide investigation depends on an outrageous series of coincidences. When you think about the two more important elements required to set the ball rolling, you either class this as radical and daring plotting, or it’s an admission of failure, i.e. the only way to make the plot work is for circumstances to be contrived. The second problem is the perfunctory way in which one of the investigations is tied up. Here’s this deep-seated plot, very carefully executed, that contains the seed of its own destruction. How is the seed detected? The detective just happens to see a photograph. . . and on that one fact, she goes to the right place, and finds people there, one of whom spills the beans almost immediately. How convenient that it can all be resolved in two pages!

Nevertheless, this is an interesting book for its view of Spanish culture. We should note the author’s decision to place two women in key policing role, and to have the hero’s wife swing to the other sexual pole. The book also accepts couples will sometimes have quite wide age variations, or that a pregnant woman may not be so distressed if the father decides he needs to go out to buy some cigarettes, and so on. This is a more open-minded version of Spain than I was expecting, albeit one that’s being put together to conform to the noir expectations. In all this, Salgado’s character is portrayed in a very sympathetic way. He walks the line between the powerless passivity of a victim and a man in search of redemption. The result is an engaging mystery puzzle for us to solve. No matter what the triggers are, disentangling the web of motives and activities proves intellectually satisfying. The characterisation is rounded in credible social contexts. The Summer of Dead Toys is worth reading.

For a review of the next book in the series, see The Good Suicides.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan

November 8, 2013 Leave a comment


One of the more interesting developments in the marketing field has been the increasing use of quotes on the front and back covers, and on the front end papers. Bilbo Baggins (author of There and Back Again) says this is the best fantasy book to reach the Shires! There seems to be an assumption both that all the readers will know who this Baggins person is and are likely to be influenced by his opinion. In this, I note with considerable amusement that my own words have occasionally been used as part of the quoted praise. While naturally being convinced of my own ability to judge the worth of books, I seriously doubt many people agree with the generality of my opinions (particularly those who know who I am). The reason for starting in this way is the words on the back cover of The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan (Quercus, 2013) Dinosaurens fjer translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund. The headline is, “Danish crime novel of the decade!” Not that I take any notice, but it does seem to me to trespass closer on to the territory of hectoring, intimidation and bullying. This is not just the book of the year, you see. It’s the book of the decade. Disagree with this informed judgement at your peril! Although in the defence of the British publisher, Denmark voted and knows what it likes. Yet, in the wider scheme of things, the fact the country only has 5.6 million population means their opinion counts for even less than mine (or so I believe when the book is translated into English and gets judged by wider criteria).

So what do we actually get in this package? Well, the first and most obvious element is the number of words. This tome weighs in at a chunky 448 pages, so it’s suitable for one of those long Scandinavian nights when the snow falls and the sun refuses to shine. I’m not against longer books per se, but if I’m going to wade through more than four-hundred pages, it has to prove worth the effort when the dust has settled. To make us feel there’s a big reward at the end, the author sets up the narrative with three major threads. Obviously, we start with the murder mystery with the first of three deaths the result of a rather gruesome method. So, if you’re of a weak disposition, you might want to skip over the detailed discussions. The second and third deaths are routine and not something that will disturb. The second element is an exploration of a manufactured scientific dispute as to the origin of birds. It seems some people refuse to accept birds evolved from dinosaurs. This could have been impenetrable but, as a biologist, the author makes the essence of the debate eminently accessible. The third and by far the most substantial part of the book is an exploration of the major characters and how they relate to each other.

Sissel-Jo Gazan

Sissel-Jo Gazan

Looking back on this, I’m quite surprised it all manages to fit into only 448 pages. We learn whodunnit, which side of the dinosaur debate is right, and what has predisposed the major characters to end up in this state. No mean achievement. To get us to the end, we have three points of view: Anna Bella Nor has written her PhD thesis and is awaiting adjudication when one of her two supervisors is murdered, Soren Marhauge is a police detective who has one of the best track records for solving crimes, and Clive Freeman is the Canadian end of the biological dispute. The thread that ties these POVs together is the dinosaur issue. The murdered supervisor and Freeman were the primary protagonists in the international dispute over the evolutionary origin of birds. The topic for Anna Bella’s thesis is this occasionally violent disagreement. She’s expected to side with her own supervisor and demolish the views advanced by Freeman. From this, you’ll understand that this obscure evolutionary spat could be the motive for the first murder. Indeed, if this is the reason for the demise of the eminent professor, Anna Bella may be next in line (assuming her thesis reaches the same scientific conclusion).

It would be fair to say almost all the people who feature in this book are damaged in some way. They have mostly had very unfortunate experiences as children and/or tragedy has supervened to leave real scars. To that extent, this preoccupation with the reasons for everyone’s psychological damage enables the book to satisfy the criterion for acceptance as Scandinavian noir. We are exploring some very painful emotional issues. Parents died when the children were young, or the father was psychologically abusive, or the mother had severe postpartum depression, and so on. This leads me to a gentle aside. This is not a warning as such. But you should not read this book with the expectation of a classic murder mystery. Rather three deaths occur while all the major characters are resolving their personal issues. Obviously, neither Anna Bella nor Soren Marhauge know whodunnit but, despite her erratic and angry behavior, she manages to gain the confidence of the three people who can give her the pieces of the jigsaw. The answer proves to be one of these immensely sad stories which, by virtue of the detail we’ve been given in the opening section of the book, resonates with real power at the end when Anna Bella is able to telephone Soren Marhauge and tell him who to arrest.

So now it comes down the the time when I get magisterial. The opening takes its time to set the scene. You need a little patience. Be reassured. Literally everything that comes through the first two-hundred pages becomes increasingly relevant in the second half of the book. By the time you finish, you understand why two of the three POV characters end up better adjusted people. They have all looked into the past and understand the forces that shaped them. Two can begin a healing process. One is trapped in the past and can never recover. Having reached the end, I feel a sense of rightness about the character development. You leave feeling you have actually met these people and spent a little time getting to know them. You can see hope for two of them which lifts the pervading sense of gloom in the first two-thirds of the book. I’m not convinced The Dinosaur Feather is the book of the decade in the international ranking order, but it’s certainly a very impressive piece of writing and is well worth reading!

A copy of this book was sent to me to review.

The Light is the Darkness by Laird Barron


I need to begin this review of The Light is the Darkness by Laird Barron (Infernal House, 2011) by clarifying my thoughts on the relationship between the work of Laird Barron and what we may properly call pulp fiction — the stories I used to read when young rather than the film bearing that name. I suppose this form of writing got started in the penny dreadful/dime novel style of the late Victorian era and then really took off as the reading opiate of the masses when cheap wood pulp paper became available for use on efficient printing presses. During their heyday in the 1920s and 30s, it was not unusual for each magazine issue to sell one-million copies. Once austerity kicked in because of WWII, the pulp magazine era was in decline and more seriously began to peter out some time in the 1950s. Of course pulp-style novels in volume persisted into the 1960s but, then, for better or worse, the era of modern publishing was upon us. I start with this brief history because pulp represents a vast legacy of ideas and writing talent. No matter what we may choose to think of the bulk of the output, some authors produced work that deserves to be remembered. Relevant to this particular book, we have H P Lovecraft and those who have sustained the Mythos over the generations, and the hard-boiled or noir approach to crime fiction.

Putting the supernatural to one side for a moment, the essence of pulp has always been the struggles of the laconic tough guy. Whether we’re dealing with a PI or just someone with an axe to grind, there’s usually a quest of some kind. Our hero is sent off to find the girl or recover lost property. On the way, he encounters various dangers which he survives with stoic resolution. When the dust has settled, there’s not always a “happy ending”. Our hero usually avoids being locked up for the mayhem and death that have attended his progress towards whatever grail he was seeking. Sometimes he buys his freedom by giving enough information to the police to arrest some of the criminals who deserve punishment. Whatever the outcome, there’s a rough kind of justice in operation which, perhaps surprisingly when the future of the human race is at stake, does not involve the hero getting the girl. Romance and procreation were never an element in those rather more cynical days. The upshot of this approach to plot creation is to give readers an introduction to a lifestyle which has danger built in. At every point, our hero is likely to find himself in a fight — if he’s unlucky, the first he knows is a blow to the head with a sap. As compared to the lives of ordinary citizens, nothing matches their normal expectations, e.g. the people he meets are somehow more exotic. Often they come with wealth oozing out of every pore, but that’s just a symptom of a malaise hanging over each family. There are always black sheep who leave the patriarchs helpless. These kin groups may think the money has bought them happiness, but that nearly always proves an illusion.

Laird Barron celebrating a piratical ancestry

Laird Barron celebrating a piratical ancestry

So in The Light is the Darkness, we have a young man who, from an early age, has been trained as a kind of modern day gladiator by an unusually rich man. His parents died in unusual circumstances. His mother committed suicide. His father died in a mental hospital. When we first encounter him, he’s trying to find his sister. She’s actually on a quest of her own and has gone missing. Her trail is confusing and, were it not for her habit of leaving him small caches of information to find, he would have given up the search a long time ago. Now he has new information, he’s more confident of making progress. All he needs is the money to fund his pursuit. This means another high stakes fight. Up to this point, this could all be a modern recreation of some standard pulp tropes. Substitute a boxer who’s worried about his missing sister and you have a hundred magazine stories to compare this with. Except, of course, that’s a fundamentally unfair thing to do. Most pulp is unreadable by modern standards. Laird Barron writes rather beautiful prose which delivers nicely complex puzzles for us to solve. In this novel, we want to know more clearly what his parents were doing, how and why his older brother died, what gives our hero his rather curious physical abilities, and why his sister is so obsessed by tracking down the doctor who treated their brother.

The answer to these and other questions means we cross over into supernatural territory. The world inhabited by our hero was never safe. It’s just he never quite realised how unsafe it was nor what the source of the danger actually would prove to be. All such noirish heroes can ever do is push ahead and hope for the best. When hope is wearing thin, he still keeps going because that’s what loyal brothers do when searching for their lost sisters. This answers when they come sidestep the more obvious Lovecraftian tropes but still retain a cosmic element. This proves to be a very elegant riff on an old theme but it’s so cunningly reconstructed, it comes across as pleasingly original. To paraphrase the old idiom, it never occurred to me revenge could be a dish taking quite so long to cool. Taken all together, this is Laird Barron at the top of his game with a delightfully constructed noir supernatural tale of a sometimes punchy hero struggling against the odds to find his lost sister.

For reviews of other books by Laird Barron, see:
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
The Croning

I’ve also interviewed him here.

Roachkiller and Other Stories by R Narvaez


When you read a PI novel like those involving Marlowe, it’s not unusual to have someone sneak up on our hero and knock him out with a sap blackjack blow to the back of the head. He never sees it coming and wakes up, stinking with gin and lying next to a dead body. Well, Roachkiller and Other Stories by R Narvaez (Beyond the Page, 2012) managed the same thing for me as a reader (the gin was diluted with tonic and no dead body, fortunately). When you start a book by an author new to you, there’s hope in your heart. Except this time, the experience is quite stunning. Eight of these ten are terrific stories. Even in marginal failure, the stories have a precise narrative economy. All are told in an efficient, stripped-down noir style and embrace the tough side of life with bland acceptance. Whereas others sensationalise for effect, this author gives us unadorned grittiness and leaves any moral judgement to us. One of these stories is original although the author does confess to having tweaked the text of those already published. The only downside to this ebook collection is that it’s short. Except I suppose it’s a good thing that the author left me wanting more.

R Narvaez

R Narvaez

“In the Kitchen with Johnny Albino” is about life choices. There’s nothing you can do about the basics of biology. If you will insist on sleeping with men and not taking precautions, pregnancy usually follows. The life already tough with one child is about to get tougher with another on the way. So when you’re in that situation, what do you do? You could go back to Puerto Rico or you could take a risk and run a numbers book. That would be empowering so long as the established players looked the other way. This is a pleasingly elegant story about a lady who discovers a strength she’d not expected. We’re left uncertain how it will all turn out but at least satisfied she’s taken the first steps. “Juracán” is the name given to the god of chaos and disorder by the Taino Indians in Puerto Rico. This plot demonstrates the old adage that if you roll with the blows, you arrive at the end of the fight with minimal damage. Of course, this requires you to stay calm when all around you are excited, particularly if there’s a hurricane coming in your direction. The man who earned the name “Roachkiller” is a walking hurricane who learned his lesson well and has no intention of going back to jail. Normally this would mean avoiding the company of other criminals and not committing further offences. This man has a slightly different strategy. “GhostD” captures another life choice. This time we’re travelling with a man who has a desk job with a private security company. He’s got a quiet life dealing with ID theft but then someone has to ask for his help. And one thing just leads to another as the man he’s looking for turns up dead. So what’s a desk jockey to do? “Santa’s Little Helper” reminds us the old established employees are tough and the newcomers are inexperienced, particularly when it comes to running.

“Unsynchronicity” teaches us that when bad stuff happens, it happens and, in short order, it keeps on happening in “Ibarra Goes Down” as a man on a mission to Australia finds an urgent need to defend himself when the fridge door opens. “Watching the Iguanas” takes us into the future and shows us some people still have to live from one drink or one meal to the next. Such a life teaches you to keep going as long as you can and reminds us to carry a snack in case of need. “Rough Night in Toronto” shows us a future in which androids get to play an active part in life. Little changes when it comes to criminal activity except they’re harder to kill. Finally, “Zinger” has a different take on an execution that doesn’t quite work out the way everyone expects. Taking the overview, Roachkiller and Other Stories is a finalist for the International Latino Book Award for Best eBook – Fiction and well worth reading if you enjoy stories with a noir edge and a sometimes vicious sense of humour.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

An Iron Rose by Peter Temple


By way of opening, I make no apology for revisiting an old question: what makes a good “detective” novel. Not in the sense of a police procedural, you understand. In what I suppose is now the post-Golden Age, we seem to have entered a permanent grey area in which individuals who are neither serving police officers nor registered private inquiry agents solve crimes. In An Iron Rose by Peter Temple, we’ve got a “retired” police officer now making a living for himself as a blacksmith and factotum out in the Australian countryside — a veritable wilderness in which to wander for years.

You’ll notice I was careful to pose the question as referring to a “detective” novel. In US terms, this blurs into either or both the mystery and PI subgenres. The essence of all books of this type is for the protagonist to identify clues and so solve crimes, usually a homicide or two. This distinguishes thrillers which are more usually anticipatory books where the more heroic protagonist discovers a plot to kill the President or blow up the moon (see The Face by Jack Vance — sorry that’s cheating because it’s science fiction) and must defy the odds to prevent this terrible plot from reaching its intended conclusion. The emphasis is on page-turning excitement which generates tension in the reader. After a certain point, we all know who’s who in the good/bad stakes and, more often than not, the protagonist is the underdog. To achieve the required “thrills”, the emphasis is on the action with the hero regularly exposed to the risk of injury or death. As a result, the language used by the authors is less important. In “detective” books, the authors are free to indulge their delight in words and dabble in simile and metaphor as the mood takes them. More importantly, the rules of the genre allow them to go slow if the mood takes them that way.

Peter Temple

Peter Temple

In writing this review I’m forced to the admission this is a first. Although common sense tells all readers anyone can write a noir novel (except, perhaps, the Nepalese who are so far up the happiness index they probably don’t know what noir is), this is my first look at what’s legitimately to be classified as “authentic” Australian noir. The hero is a disgraced police officer. He was the case manager on a high-profile investigation into a drug distributor who was killed while under observation. He’s therefore scapegoated, i.e. he’s the victim of corruption in the police force. Fortunately, he has skills learned from his father to fall back on and can make his own way, avoiding further contact with the police and the politicians with their own less than honest agendas. This retreat into the more gentle pace of the countryside, its drinking culture and addiction to Australian Rules Football, is rudely shattered when his neighbour and his father’s best friend is found hanging. No-one who knew the man believes he would have committed suicide but, equally, no-one can suggest why anyone would have wanted to kill him. Reluctantly, he makes a few inquiries which leads him to a local institution tasked with helping young women who are in deemed in need of rehabilitation. The deceased worked there for a while in the 1980s and visited again shortly before his death. This seems more than a coincidence when our hero discovers some newspapers carefully preserved by the deceased which refer to the body of a young woman found in a mine shaft.

As a first-person narrative this is a wonderfully controlled piece of writing with some delightfully wry observations on those our hero meets. Ignoring the plot which, as you will rightly surmise, gets into some quite dark aspects of human behaviour, the quality of the prose alone makes the book worth reading. Add in the increasingly dangerous nature of the investigation and you have a really pleasing outcome as our hero unearths the deep roots of corruption and fights for truth, justice and the Australian way of playing football. My only problem with the book as presented to me is with the introduction which is wholly unnecessary and excessive in length. If there was going to be a eulogy included, it should have come as a short appreciation at the end of the book. My advice, therefore, is for everyone who enjoys great prose used in service of noir fiction to read the text of An Iron Rose by Peter Temple, but to pass over the introduction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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