Potted reviews: Russian Roulette: The Konstantin Files by Keith Nixon, High-Rise by J.G. Ballard, Mr Majestyk by Elmore Leonard

Keith Nixon’s The Fix impressed me a couple of year’s back (and the sequel of sorts I’m Dead Again is just as good). Both featured a six-feet-five Russian tramp called Konstantin whose skillset is considerably more advanced than that of the average homeless citizen. In The Fix and even in I’m Dead Again he’s more of a supporting character. However, in the cracking collection of novellas called Russian Roulette he takes center stage. Along the way Konstantin encounters bumbling criminals, wannabe hardmen, drugs, dominatrixes, prostitution, fake psychics, and other misfortunes, most of which he deals with using a combination of smarts and fast fists. This anthology is packed with top notch entertainment from start to finish, written in short punchy sentences that capture the right mix of description, action and character. These are fast-paced, action-packed, foul-mouthed stories with a fair dose of heart. Highly recommended.

I recently read J.G. Ballard’s The Drought. It came across as well written but somewhat vague and episodic. It was too drawn out and the characters were too opaque for it to be truly compelling. It didn’t fill me with any compulsion to read any other of the Ballard novels on my shelf in the near future. But then the film of High Rise came out and I decided that I should read the novel before watching the film. And I’m glad I did. The book is, in a word, brilliant. Unlike The Drought this one is all just crazy momentum. It starts with a truly wonderful opening line and gets better from there. Whether viewed as an allegory about status and class, a statement on modern society’s inability to function without its technological trappings, or just as a satire about alienation, this is blistering fiction. I loved every second of it.

As regular readers of this blog probably know, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard. I try to get through at least one or two of his novels every year, just as a palate cleanser. His work always feels like a homecoming of sorts (Leonard was the first crime novelist I read) and Mr Majestyk was no different. It’s basically just a western dressed up in contemporary clothing, but Leonard’s spare writing makes it seem contemporary and fresh. Melon farmer, and former soldier, Vincent Majestyk wants nothing more than to be left in peace to bring in his melon crop, but various people get in the way of this including a mafia hitman. He gets zero help from the ineffectual local police, who actually want to use Majestyk as bait to lure the hitman, so decides to take the law into his own hands and hunt down the bad guys. Like I stated, just like in a western, a small guy gets pushed around by big interests and pushes back with bloody results, but the pleasure comes from the way the tale is modernised and told. Elmore Leonard couldn’t tell a dull story if he tried: his dialogue is always a pleasure to read, his descriptions hit just the right notes of concise, snappy detail, and the action and momentum is just right. If the romance between Majestyk and Nancy Chavez is a bit pat and easy that’s probably because this was Leonard’s second contemporary crime novel (after the relatively low-key The Big Bounce) and he didn’t really hit his stride until the next novel Fifty-two Pickup. But that’s a minor caveat because this is a cracking read otherwise.

Subtitle Fatigue: The Gripping Post With the Twist that’s got Everybody Talking

Am I the only person out there who’s bloody sick and tired of seeing Kindle books with SEO subtitles that are like a mini-essay?

For example:

The Girl with a Girl Tattoo: The psychological thriller novel with a gripping twist that you just won’t see coming!

A Man Without Eyes: The astonishing debut thriller novel that will grip you by the genitals until the very last page!

Book titles with colons and a short essay of random keyword bullshit seem to be the new trend for indie fiction and some self-publishers, now that The Girls… are beginning to wear out their welcome. Every new book that seems to be hitting the Kindle charts at the moment is followed by some ludicrously long subtitle/essay. I’m not sure if you agree (maybe you don’t), but this whole thing just screams AMATEUR! It also automatically makes me not want to buy the thing. In fact, if your title is followed by a colon and a random-arse description of what it contains then I’m sorry, but you’ve just been scratched off my to-read list forever. It could be the best novel ever written, but I’ll never know because I just won’t read it.

Is that writer and reader snobbery? Perhaps. Call me strange if you like, but I prefer not to be informed about an impending twist, and I don’t need to be persuaded that something is gripping. I prefer to read for myself and make an informed decision. And if I’m looking for thrillers, if your novel shows up in my search I can safely assume that the fucking thing is, in fact, a “thriller novel.”

I know I won’t stack my work with subtitles for a competitive advantage. If I can’t say what needs to be stated within the genre selectors that Amazon provides, along with its generous keyword provision, and my book blurb then, frankly, my novels deserve to fail.

Rant over!

 

Some fresh cover concepts

I’m thinking of renewing my cover designs. The aesthetic is rough and gritty – all sketchy, nervous lines and spatters of colour – reflecting the content of the books. It’ll be interesting to know people’s opinions. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Do I need a better illustrator (ie. somebody who’s not me)?

Personally, I like them. They sum up the content and the location of the book better than the current covers. Over the coming weeks I intend to do the rest of the covers, but it’ll be interesting looking at these a few weeks after their initial creation and see if I still feel the same about them.

CuriousCaseCover v2   BoneBreakers2016

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to know your thoughts on the matter. If you’re feeling chatty let me know in the comments section (particularly if you feel these are more impactful than the current covers).

Ta.

Martin

 

 

Review: The Colombian Mule by Massimo Carlotto

Massimo Carlotto’s The Colombian Mule is one of a series of novels featuring a recurring character called Marco ‘The Alligator’ Buratti, an unlicensed PI who was once imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, along with his accomplices Max The Memory and former Mafia heavy Beniamino Rossini. In this novel he is tasked with working for a man who has been fitted up in a sting involving a Colombian drug mule. His case isn’t helped by the fact that he is already a fairly unrepentent criminal (who got away with the murders of two policemen) and that his only possible chance of release is for the mule to admit that the whole operation was a frame-up. As Buratti and his allies delve deeper into the case they find that the whole thing goes deeper than just a Colombian connection. They are soon enmeshed in a case that involves the police, designer drugs production, double- and triple-crosses, and a system that is at best hopelessly inept and at worst hopelessly corrupt.

Having enjoyed some previous Europa Editions novels and spurred on by enthusiastic cover reviews – such as this one by the New Yorker: “Carlotto’s taut, broody Mediterranean noir is filled with blind corners and savage set pieces” – I decided to give it a try. Well, as much as I liked The Colombian Mule I had some real caveats, too. The New Yorker review, with its talk of “blind corners and savage set pieces” must be describing a different novel to the one I’ve just finished. The set pieces are anything but savage; in fact, they’re underwritten to the point where they are just basic descriptions of a thing that happened. There’s little tension, nothing is drawn out to create suspense or thrills, and there’s a distinct lack of ‘savagery’. If I compare this with Mr Majestyk by Elmore Leonard, the novel I’m currently reading, there’s a real difference in approach. One particular set-piece during the first third of Mr Majestyk stretches to about six pages in length. It’s exciting, tense, written concisely with an eye for just the right details – a beautiful piece of action writing. Carlotto deals with a murder towards the end of the novel in two or three short paragraphs with zero tension or emotional investment described in flat, declarative prose – a bland, dull piece of action writing.

My other caveat is that the ‘detection’ mostly involves Rossini threatening people, either through his reputation or via actual violence, or by intelligence work performed by Max The Memory. Buratti himself is a fairly benign character, offering little more than musings about women and legendary consumption of Calvados (a beverage I’m now obssessed with trying at least once). He lacks Rossini’s sociopathic indifference to using violence as a means to an end and he doesn’t possess Max’s analytical intelligence. He’s more of a conduit between the two more interesting characters.

Still, despite all these shortcomings, there was something likeable and offbeat about the relationship of the three protagonists, and the downer ending packs a decent wallop. Although I’ll be happy to read another novel in this series (along with some of Carlotto’s other work), I’ll be in no particular rush to do it. Decent but not essential.

Roger Smith talks about his brilliant new novel Nowhere

Nowhere_RogerSmith

Regular readers of this blog will know just how highly I rate Roger Smith’s excellent new novel Nowhere. It contains fantastic characters, a compelling plot, along with a detailed view of South African politics (old and new).

It’s available to pre-order at the moment but will be available to buy on 23rd February. I highly suggest you grab a copy. Otherwise you’re missing a treat.

Roger was kind enough to answer some questions about the new novel recently. He really gave me some very illuminating answers that should make folks want to read this superb novel

Nowhere is without a doubt the most political book of your career. And South Africa is such a prominent supporting character in the story. Was it your intention to bring more attention to the politics of your country with this novel?
The three books I wrote before Nowhere (Capture, Sacrifices and Man Down) were all pretty intense, almost claustrophobic, psychological thrillers. Since they were set in South Africa (although Man Down was also set partly in the US) the particular nature of South African society—which is a very politicized society—informed the books, of course. The decisions the characters made (and the crimes they were able to get away with) were a direct consequence of living in South Africa, but the unique political sensibility of the country was implicit in those quite contained stories rather than highlighted.

So, before I wrote Nowhere, before I had any idea what the book would be about, I felt the impulse to write something more expansive, something on a broader canvas, and something that would allow me to use all stuff crammed into my fifty-five-year-old South African head: memories, fears, anger, disillusionment—the fallout from growing up under apartheid, going through the giddy Mandela era and then witnessing the rise of the cynical, corrupt regime that is in power now.

I’d been obsessively reading Shelley’s Ozymandias, with its powerful image of a broken statue’s trunkless legs and head lying in the desert sand—a warning about the inevitable decline of all leaders and of the empires they build—and it struck me that all that remains of the Afrikaners’ forty-six year blight of apartheid (when they had felt so all-powerful) are some old statues of their forgotten leaders lying in sheds or standing in the dust in a couple of tragic little white homelands whose inhabitants still cling to the notion of Boer superiority, and it left me with the certainty that this new regime will come to dust, too, in time.

What was the hardest part of writing this particular book?
I was worried that it was too South African. That it would be incomprehensible—or, worse, boring—to foreign readers. I wrestled with that while I was writing it and then I thought, fuck it, just write the thing the way it wants to be written. I’ve been very encouraged by the early feedback on the book (including yours) from readers in the UK, Europe and North America.

There is one particular moment when Steve Bungu recalls a specific piece of torture to a loved one. Was this based on research?
Over the years I’ve known people who were tortured by the SA security police and I’ve also spoken to security policemen and I’ve heard stories that are hard to stomach and difficult to comprehend, so, yes, the stuff in Nowhere is rooted in fact.

Speaking of Bungu: In my own humble opinion, you write the best villains in crime fiction – how do you manage to create such vile, and yet three-dimensional antagonists?
Thanks, Martin, I appreciate that. Well, villains are always the most interesting characters to write, aren’t they? And the challenge is to give them dimension, to make them complex, to force the reader to identify with them to some degree, even if that’s uncomfortable.

The genesis of Bungu was quite interesting. Around thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I lived in Johannesburg and was involved in making anti-apartheid documentaries. This was a bad time: states of emergency, draconian media gags, troops in the townships, arrests, political murders. Nobody had any inkling that it would all be over in a few years. Anyway, I was put in touch with a Zulu poet who was quite a prominent figure in the Black Consciousness movement who had been detained and tortured by the security police in Durban and had escaped and was hiding out in a brothel in Hillbrow, a very rundown, dangerous part of Jo’burg.

I met the guy (I won’t mention his name as he was a lovely man, not at all like the monstrous Bungu) and we struck up an unlikely friendship. Here was this Black Consciousness (by definition anti-white) poet befriending a young white guy. The police had beaten him badly and all but destroyed his left knee. He’d been unable to get proper medical attention for fear of being apprehended and lived on painkillers and booze. The hookers cooked for him and cleaned his room and probably provided other services, gratis, to soothe him. He had no interest in discussing politics with me, he just wanted to drink Scotch and talk about books. He was going through a Beckett phase, I guess the absurdity of those plays struck a chord and informed his poems. We had wonderful, wild conversations. He was a very funny man. After a month or so he disappeared back to Durban and I never saw him again, but I never forgot him.

When I sat down to write Nowhere I was fascinated by the idea of a young man, a student who loved Beckett, who had the ambition to be a playwright (as Bungu did) whose life became overwhelmed by his battle against apartheid. Who, after a devastating period of torture and detention, went from being an idealistic pacifist to a stone killer.


Many of your novels involve messed-up family units – what makes this such a compelling theme for you as a writer?
What did Philip Larkin say? “They fuck you up your mum and dad . . . but they were fucked up in their turn.” I suppose I’m fascinated by the whole sins of the fathers thing. The karmic wheel creaking. And the messed-up family is just a metaphor for the broader messed-up society, isn’t it?

You’ve now written three novels that involve Disaster Zondi: do you have any further plans for the character?
You know, as much as I liked Zondi when I wrote Mixed Blood, I had no intention of writing him again. I resisted the idea of creating a series character, which can pigeon-hole a writer. When I was working on Dust Devils a couple of years later Zondi would wake me up at night (I’m serious, he would appear in my dreams and wake me) and insist I put him in the book. I did, and it worked. But when I was done with Dust Devils I was sure I was done with Disaster Zondi, too.

But, for a while, my French publisher, the irrepressible Robert Pépin, has been at me to write another book featuring Zondi. For whatever reason Zondi has quite a following in France. And when I started work on Nowhere I realized Zondi would be a perfect addition to the ensemble cast: an older, jaded, disillusioned Zondi, in the twilight of his career.

Will I write him again? No plans, but it’s not impossible . . .

What does your writing process involve (for instance, initial plotting, research, and then the actual mechanics of writing and redrafting)?
I start off with an image, usually quite random, that often becomes the opening of the book. With Nowhere it was the image of the president of South Africa murdering his wife with a spear in the dining room of his official Cape Town residence. I had no idea where this came from or what to do with it, but I wrote the scene and then Steve Bungu, fully formed, dressed in his check shorts and golf shirt, walked through the door of the dining room and I was off and running.

I don’t like to structure things too tightly, I find this stifling. It tends to encourage formulaic plotting. I like to give my characters their heads, let them surprise me. And new characters just appear as I write, which is great. Like the bushman cop, Jan Assegaai. Zondi walked into a rural police station and there Assegaai was, standing by the window that looked out onto the desert. I had no idea that he’d be there but I loved writing him. (Now there’s a character I could bring back . . .)

Research tends to happen as I write the first draft and it happens in response to what I’m writing.

I bang the first draft out as fast as I can, in around eight weeks. Then, when I understand what I’m writing about, I write draft after draft after draft, honing and refining, for another three to four months.

There has been talk of a film adaptation of Mixed Blood: any further news on that front?
Shit, it’s a slow process. It’s been going on for years, with different producers and screenwriters. Movies are tough. All that money, all that risk. If it happens it happens . . .

What novelists have most influenced your work?
In no particular order: Patricia Highsmith, Richard Stark, Norman Mailer, Martin Amis, Jim Harrison, Pete Dexter, Denis Johnson, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Graham Greene, Richard Ford, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Ross Thomas. Many, many more . . .

Are you currently working on any new writing projects?
I’ve just finished writing an international espionage novel under a pseudonym. I can’t really say more as publishing deals are still being inked, which is very exciting. But there’ll be more South African books, for sure

Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?
Turning on the computer each morning and typing that first word.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing? Hobbies, interests etc.
I have a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, so I spend a lot of time in kidland, which is a sweet antidote to my work. I live by the ocean, so swimming and walking on the beach is fun. I read a lot. I do ashtanga yoga every morning before I write.

What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching? Do they influence your writing at all?
I love movies and TV right now is astonishingly good, isn’t it? Series like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were an inspiration. Vince Gilligan, who was the Breaking Bad showrunner and is now doing Better Call Saul, is a real innovator: the structure of his scripts—the way he messes with time—is fascinating.

I worked in movies and TV for years and people have said that my writing has a “cinematic quality” so there’s been some cross-pollination, clearly.

Nowhere can be bought here now and will be available for download on 23rd February

Review: Nowhere by Roger Smith

After last year’s grand guignol excess (in terms of both violence and the vileness of the characters) in the mostly US set home invasion thriller Man Down Roger Smith has toned things down and returned to his home ground of South Africa for his brilliant new novel Nowhere. Anybody who reads this blog regularly (and I know there are a few of you) will know how highly I rate Smith’s work.

When South Africa’s venal, alcoholic president murders his wife in a rage, Steve Bungu (a brilliant creation) sets about fixing it. He starts by murdering the wife’s private bodyguard and then brings in retired detective Joe Louw, via a touch of emotional blackmail, to run a whitewash investigation. Bungu uses Louw’s messed-up, psychopathic son, Leon, as a means of keeping him in line. At the same time, Disaster Zondi, previously from Mixed Blood and Dust Devils, is sent to Nerens (in Afrikaan the Nowhere of the title) to arrest and bring to justice Apartheid relic, and white power ‘General’, Magnus Kruger, for the murder of a young black man.

This sets in motion a complicated tale of revenge and the abuse of power. As Joe Louw realises that Bungu’s motives for blackmail go back to his apartheid days as an activist, Zondi also comes to realise that Kruger might just be innocent of the murder he’s in the frame for, but responsible for something equally as dark and unpleasant. And as the two initially separate investigations begin to coalesce in odd ways, blood begins to flow.

In many ways Nowhere is the archetypal Roger Smith book, in that it draws on his familiar themes of messed-up family units (especially Sacrifices and Capture) and the messed-up politics of South Africa (in particular Dust Devils) and pulls them together in a way that he’s never quite managed before. It also creates in Steve Bungu the finest villain of Smith’s career (which is quite a feat, because I personally feel that Smith writes the best villains around). He is an awful, Machiavellian character, and utterly ruthless, but he also has his reasons. He wasn’t born that way, but moulded by the horrific sins of apartheid. The reader understands the reasons for what he does, even though they will undoubtedly, and with good reason, despise his methods. Smith also creates in Joe Louw and Disaster Zondi two sympathetic characters. Some of the terrible decisions that Louw makes following his blackmail (one of which leads to a massacre) come from promises he made to his dying wife. He does bad things, but he’s not a bad man. Zondi is a shell of the person he was in Dust Devils, but somewhere along the line he develops a newfound taste for his job and an increased sense of worth. Even a villain like Magnus Kruger is given some depth and shade for his crimes and venality.

Nowhere is brilliantly written with a narrative propulsion that kept me reading into the night. Smith has always been able to plot with the best of them, but Nowhere really marks a step up: the plotting is superbly measured and lends an epic feel to the proceedings. Smith also tones back the violence and sadism that, I felt, marred the otherwise excellent set-up of Man Down, and uses it as a part of the plot and as a means to explore character. Yes, it is brutal, but not excessively so and entirely in keeping with the storyline. The characters are also among the best that Smith has created. I can’t recommend Nowhere highly enough. If there’s any justice in the literary world then it should bucketloads of both Kindle and paperback copies. Nowhere should be Smith’s real breakout success.

Potted Reviews: The Rapist by Les Edgerton, Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden

It’s been a while since I posted any reviews. I’m still avoiding most social media, but I thought that my recent reading has included some strong books that deserve exposure to a much wider audience (although Philip Kerr doesn’t need help on that front). And I’m also trying to get back into reviewing again. 2015 was patchy on the reviews front – some of my year end list didn’t have full blog reviews.

So without further ado…

The Rapist by Les Edgerton
The story of Truman Pinter, and how he came to be in prison, is told in his own flowery words on the last night of his life. He is on death row for the rape and murder of a barmaid. Well, he happily admits to the rape, but he denies the murder charge, because she was an intellectually inferior specimen in his eyes and made the mistake of annoying him. Pinter is clearly intelligent, but he’s also insane. He is self-aggrandizing, intolerant of others, and highly unsympathetic and unreliable as a narrator. His unreliability is as much of a surprise to him as it is to the reader. He suppresses and compresses information not because he wants to but because he has internalised so much rage. He reads like a more flowery version of the already locquacious Humbert Humbert.

Les Edgerton’s superb The Bitch was one of my favourite reads of 2014 but The Rapist is as far from that tale as it is possible to get. Whereas The Bitch was tight and mean and made short work of its complex noir narrative, this tale’s prose style is flowery (intentionally so) and nasty. It’s different and difficult. The subject matter alone is going to divide readers, but Edgerton’s execution is what elevates something that could have been voyeuristic or downright dull in the wrong hands. It’s not crime fiction or noir, it’s more like The Belly of the Beast as recounted by Nietzsche. The ending is likely to be as divisive as the subject matter and open to all manner of interpretations. It’s a very strong piece of work. Original and brave. And recommended for those with a strong stomach and an open mind.

Berlin Noir: March Violets / The Pale Criminal / A German Requiem by Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels cannily apply the Raymond Chandler model to Germany just before, during and just after the second world war. Gunther, like Philip Marlowe, is a shop-soiled Sir Galahad – displaying decency in the face of corruption and evil. And like the great LA detective he’s just as quick with a one-liner.

The research and detail of these novels is terrific, weaving Gunther seamlessly into historical events and into the orbits of several major Nazi operators. The stories drip with period detail and atmosphere and they are well plotted and the characters are superb. Kerr knows how to push a narrative along and keep the reader interested. And most of the time the writing strikes an excellent balance between storytelling verve and descriptive excellence. However, occasionally Kerr likes to lavish the page with unnecessary metaphors and similes. Sometimes they are right on the money, but other times they jarred me out of the story. Also, the quality of some of the metaphors were wanting in comparison with Chandler. Otherwise this is a superb, highly recommended collection of crime fiction.

Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler
Scorch Atlas is an interesting though not always successful collection of apocalyptic tales and vignettes. Butler’s writing often ascends to some wonderful heights, though sometimes it reads like little more than a shopping list of pestilence and destruction. The best stories (Television Milk and The Ruined Child come to mind) knit superb prose and a distinctive vision of hell on earth. They also display a fear of family and people in general. The problem with the apocalypse is that it gets a little repetitive after a while. The stories often segue into each other – drowned worlds, horrific diseases and deformities, nature rebelling against man and beast – and the lack of memorable characters doesn’t help with differentiating things. If Butler had paid as much attention to character as he did to the rhythm of his prose this collection would be an ouright winner. But he didn’t and it isn’t – decent, though with moments of brilliance

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden
I wanted to read this before I made a start on the Netflix series Narcos. Basically, I wanted to know the truth (or as close as anybody can get without being there) of the story before watching a more dramatised version of it.

To be honest, it’s a tale that doesn’t need to be exaggerated or sexed up. The story of Pablo Escobar, and the men (both Colombian and American) who lined up to stop him, is so utterly wild that if an author tried to present it as fiction nobody would believe it. Escobar earned billions (back in the days when this was still a relatively difficult thing to achieve), pretty much owned and modernised the city of Medellin, and organised a reign of terror across Colombia. He tried to run for public office in the early days of his empire. He was responsible for the deaths of police, armed forces, government officials, presidential candidates. He was even considered the mastermind behind an airplane bombing and bombs in public places. Like I said, life is often stranger and wilder than fiction.

Even the attempts to bring him down were the stuff of fiction. Endemic corruption in Colombian society meant that Pablo’s snitches were embedded deeply within government, the military, and the police. He was able to evade capture for years (and later escape from ‘prison’) thanks to high levels of corruption. The few people who couldn’t be corrupted were either targeted by Pablo’s sicarios or slated by a press and public that didn’t know what to believe. Even the American operation was mired with infighting by the small, tightly operated, and brilliant Centra Spike intelligence unit and the bloated and highly expensive CIA operation. Centra Spike won the battle to chase Escobar, but it cost them in the long run.

It’s a story that benefits from Bowden’s impartial and considered approach. He doesn’t sensationalise or sex things up, probably because he knows that the facts speak for themselves, and his storytelling skills are strong. He keeps the prose in the background and never shows off, which throws the astonishing events into sharp relief. This is an excellent bit of non-fiction that reads as compellingly and quickly as some of the finest crime fiction. Highly recommended.