Review: Perfidia by James Ellroy

I loved James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. They are about as perfect a series of crime novels as it is possible to get, and in White Jazz he produced one of the best novels ever written (in any genre). It works as a character study, a beautifully plotted mystery, a linguistic extravaganza, and the perfect way to bookend a brilliant series. It’s also got fucking Eyeball Man. Any book that has Eyeball Man in it is improved by exactly one hundred per cent. The Underworld USA trilogy of books (the superb American Tabloid, the excellent but difficult The Cold Six Thousand, and the fine but flawed Blood’s A Rover) were also massive achievements. However, some of his other recent works have been patchy to say the least: Shakedown was poor and the autobiographical The Hilliker Curse is very mediocre in comparison with the brilliance of My Dark Places. Also, he’s not a very good writer of short stories.

A few years ago, when he did a Q&A in London to promote Blood’s A Rover, Ellroy told the audience that he planned to do an earlier LA Quartet, running from Pearl Harbour right through to the period just prior to The Black Dahlia. Being a bit of a renowned practical joker (in fact, much of Ellroy’s shtick is an act), the audience laughed and chuckled and went oh, right, Jimmy, pull the other one. Nobody believed him.

So when the press release went out that Ellroy was indeed working on another earlier LA Quartet, everybody in that audience must have felt very foolish. I have a feeling that those people might have experienced some trepidation too. After all, a writer revisiting a previous success after years away can sometimes be a recipe for disaster.

So, is Perfidia a disaster?

No, it’s not a disaster, but it isn’t great, either.

The huge story concerns the ritual murder of a naturalised Japanese family and its proximity with the attack on Pearl Harbour. It also involves land grabs from interned Japanese Americans, eugenics, pornography, and Communist conspiracies. As with all Ellroy novels with plotting is superb with nary a foot put wrong, but to get to the point where you realise that this is a decent read you have to wade through the first quarter. From goosestepping Japanese snitches, to Dudley howling every time somebody cracks a joke, to over-abundant alliteration (more so than usual), there are a lot of the worst Ellroy excesses in this. And it’s frankly fucking tiresome. So much so that I nearly shelved it.

And then something clicked, though I’m not sure what caused that click, and I began to enjoy the novel. It has some massive flaws. Kay Lake’s diary for starters, which reads exactly like James Ellroy, with no modulation in the writing style. In the original LA Quartet, Dudley Smith was served up in small portions, and there’s a reason for this – a little Dudley goes a long way. In large portions he becomes tiresome – particularly his ridiculous speech about communing with a wolf in Ireland (especially ludiculous if you know that there haven’t been wolves in Ireland since the 18th century), and his doomed and somewhat pointless affair with Bette Davis. Also get this, Dudley is Elizabeth Short’s father – that’s right, folks, the Black Dahlia herself – which really isn’t necessary because it adds nothing to the story. However, the bits involving Hideo Ashida and Bill Parker do work well, particularly when they interact with Dudley, and the plot mechanics are well assembled and mesh beautifully.

The language (aside from the over-use of alliteration in places) is as sharp as ever. The style is less telegrammatic than that used in the Underworld USA trilogy and is all the better for it (though he really should have altered his approach for Kay Lake’s diary). And the man’s storytelling chops remain impressive, even if there is too much padding and the first quarter is a chore. I can recommend it to seasoned Ellroy readers (you folks are going to read it anyway), but those new to Ellroy would be better served by reading the first LA Quartet, The Underworld USA trilogy or the Lloyd Hopkins novels first.

The Glasgow Grin by Martin Stanley

thegamblersnovel:

Derrick Horodyski gave The Glasgow Grin an excellent review on his blog. Please feel free to give it a read, and then go and check out the rest of his posts.

Originally posted on Regular Guy Reading Noir:

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About a year ago, I took a chance and bought a book called The Hunters by Martin Stanley, an author I was unfamiliar with. I devoured the book in two days and immediately started looking for other books he had written. That is how I stumbled upon the series of short stories and novellas that feature the Stanton Brothers. This accidental discovery of Stanley’s work is one of the top highlights of the past year in my reading life.

To say that the Stanton Brothers’ stories, novellas, and novels will keep you entertained is making too simplistic of a statement. To be accurate, they will entertain you, amaze you, make you laugh, keep you up late at night as you read “just one more chapter” and make you a fan of Martin Stanley forever.

I have been waiting for him to release The Glasgow Grin since I finished his last…

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Review: Angels of the North by Ray Banks

Set in the Derwent Hall estate in the Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher’s social experiment with selling off public utilities to the highest bidder, selling council houses to willing tenants, and turning Britain into a service based economy was at its height, Angels of The North deals with three men who turn vigilante when their estate is threatened by a squat filled with drug dealers and junkies. When Joe, a former soldier and heroin user, is informed by Gavin, a local cabbie, about the violent assault of estate resident Brian at the hands of the dealers, he decides that he can kill two birds with one stone: he can drive the dealers off the estate and also get his hands on a free supply of H. He does this by roping in the initially reluctant Gav – who has delusions of grandeur and wants to run the cab firm he works for – and the even more reluctant Brian – an intelligent but unemployed man cursed with a deceitful ex-wife and unpleasant teenage daughter – and gets them to help him raid the squat; although he doesn’t divulge the fact that he’s doing it to steal heroin. Everything goes as wrong as can be expected, but it instils Gav with more determination to do something about the drug dealers.

With the help of aggressive driver Phil, Gav organises the drivers to burn down the squat. Then things change: Gav forces his unwell boss to hand over the cab firm, and turns the cab firm into a sort of Guardian Angels of Tyneside (though Phil is taking this further than agreed by beating dealers and taking their money); Joe, meanwhile, is now a full-blown heroin addict who despises his wife, his child, his live-at-home father, and himself most of all; and Brian is an alcoholic cleaner at the Metrocenter indoor shopping estate.

From here the fortunes of the men see-saw from highs to lows and back again, as their ambitions and foibles ultimately lead to a tragic and violent final third.

Regular readers of this blog will know how highly I rate Ray Banks. His storytelling abilities are first-rate, his prose is clean and fat-free and his ear for the patterns of regional British dialogue is probably the best around. The Cal Innes novels and Wolf Tickets are superb reads, but Angels of the North is something else entirely. It feels like Banks is channeling his inner James Ellroy. From the well implemented historical setting, to the distinctive three protagonist structure that the ‘Demon Dog’ made his own, right through to Puma Cabs, which seems to be a play on American Tabloid’s Tiger Kabs, Angels gives the impression of a writer wanting to expand his horizons into territory that Ellroy knows well. And like the best of Ellroy, Angels is really quite brilliant.

Three flawed, not particularly likeable, but very well-drawn protagonists propel the reader through a character driven tale. Unlike James Ellroy, Banks isn’t interested in Byzantine plotting (although the way he weaves a corrupt police officer through the story suggests that he could have gone in that direction if he so wished), he tells the story through the decisions (wise and unwise) that his characters make. Through a combination of hubris and poorly made decisions the three characters reach fates that seem entirely natural (no matter how tragic).

The writing is scalpel sharp and cuts through the characters’ lives with regularity. The dialogue resonates with authenticity and a few choice Eighties expressions that I’d almost forgotten. Angels works as an outright character drama piece and also as an exposé of what Thatcher’s policies did to the north. This novel establishes Banks as Brit Grit’s premier exponent. I might read a better novel this year, but it’s going to have to be a once in a blue moon work of brilliance to top this beauty. Highly recommended. If you don’t download this on Kindle you’re denying yourself something very special.

Review of Ben Turner Is A Dead Man by Ryan Bracha

Some months on from the events of Paul Carter Is A Dead Man, things have changed drastically in New Britain. The slow-burning rebellion that Carter started culminates in a short, bloody war with the Scottish separatists and makes life difficult for Robert Lodge and his repressive regime. For a start, a group of lawyers, led by the beautiful but unhinged Nat Sweeney, are killing crews for both revenge and fun – stating that they’re working for Paul Carter, when they are in fact flying solo; then Ben Turner is also doing the same thing. Turner is despatched by Carter and the leader of the Scots, Davie Craig, to stop Sweeney and her group by killing them. Turner, being the somewhat rebellious individual that he is, ignores his orders and instead forms an uneasy alliance with Sweeney in order to kick off a bigger revolution. But in doing so he is messing with the well-laid plans of Garner, Robert Lodge’s former right-hand man, leading to folks being sent from Scotland (including Carter) to stop Turner from messing things up for Craig, leading to a chaotic and bloody finale.

Ryan Bracha’s Paul Carter was one of my favourite books of last year. It had invention and wit in spades, as well as a propulsive storyline and great characters. Now that the element of surprise that Paul Carter created has gone, it all comes down to storytelling for the sequel. And it doesn’t disappoint, because Bracha takes that foundation and builds on it, with a plot that involves a lot flashbacks and double- and triple-crosses. The narrative steams ahead in a way that even the first book couldn’t quite manage. Ben Turner is a very good read with plenty of wit, a lively cast of characters, good writing, and a keen eye for subverting audience expectations. Highly recommended, but if you haven’t read Paul Carter yet then it is best to start with that because it is also damn fine read.

Review: Man Down by Roger Smith

In Roger Smith’s Man Down (his first set in the US), South African ex-pat couple from hell, John and Tanya Turner (who are like George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, if George and Martha were psychopaths), are the subject of a terrifying home invasion by three masked men. Initially straightforward, the plot twists and turns as fragile alliances are broken and formed between the captors and their captives, and the story flits between past and present, right up until a genuinely horrific climax.

Man Down is the first Smith I’ve read that I can’t quite give an unconditional rave, but only for reasons that I will explain at the end. Smith has always dealt in shades of grey (tending mostly towards the darker end of the gradient), but here he deals only in black. John Turner is an awful specimen of humanity, redeemed only by the fact that his wife and their kidnappers are so much worse and that he has something that might approximate love towards his daughter and girlfriend.

The story begins in dark fashion, smartly set-up in Smith’s classy, clipped prose, then gets darker and darker as the story progresses, until it collapses in on itself to form a grand guignol black hole of horror from which no light can escape. The tale is very well written, the timelines are beautifully handled, and Smith can elicit suspense like few other thriller writers, but the ending is going to be very divisive. It’s the goriest thing that Smith has ever put in a crime thriller, which is saying something, as Smith does nasty violence very well, but this is more of a horror climax. It is genuinely gut-wrenching in the truest sense of that word. Also, the fate of one of the characters (one of the few to elicit any sympathy, barring the Turner’s young daughter and a kidnapped girl) might jar readers’ sensibilities: Smith sets it up that getting close to a man like Turner, in the manner that they do, is only going to end badly. It makes sense, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

Man Down is a very good tale, but it’s so harsh and dark, without even a glint of the gallows humour sprinkled through Smith’s other tales, that you come away feeling like you should take a shower after finishing the final sentence. Smith’s brilliance keeps you reading, even when the story becomes unbearably dark and gruesome; it’s a tough tale that’s highly recommended for readers with very strong stomachs, but for those with delicate sensibilities you might want to look elsewhere.

The Hunters is currently free in the UK & the US…

TheHuntersCover.inddGlasgowGrin2013Heads up, folks. In order to capitalise on the long-awaited release of The Glasgow Grin, the direct sequel to The Hunters, the first book is now currently FREE (Yes, you read that correctly), and the sequel is a very, very reasonable 99p/$0.99. Good deal? Well, the Stanton brothers reckon it’s a steal – and if anybody knows what a steal is it’s those two. So, if that isn’t good enough for you, then I really don’t know how I’m supposed to keep you happy!

Download The Hunters for free here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Buy The Glasgow Grin here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Did you buy The Hunters from Amazon (UK & US) on Sunday 15th February?

If so, you may have received a faulty ebook file from them. The file the ebook should contain is, obviously, The Hunters, but yesterday due to a technical glitch (aka I’m a fucking clown) the file that you may have received is The Glasgow Grin.

As it was my fault this happened, and I feel rather bad about it, if you get in contact via thegamblersATgmailDOTcom and give me some proof of purchase then I will supply you with a free ebook of your choice in .mobi format.

And apologies again for the technical glitch!