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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . .

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Maurice Procter (1906 – 1973) was a well regarded crime writer who created a popular police procedural series based on the cases of Harry Martineau, a Manchester police officer. Many of Procter’s books are still in print and modern writers such as Nick Triplow (Frank’s Wild Years, Getting Carter:Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir) and Nick Oldham (The Henry Christie novels) regard him highly and cite him as an early influence.

Hell Is A City
was published in 1954 and was the first of the Harry Martineau series. Set in a Manchester disguised only by its name, Martineau goes head to head with a man he knew when they were both schoolboys, but he and Don Starling have little else in common. Starling, a violent career criminal has escaped from prison, fatally injuring a guard in the process, and stages a cash heist from a bookmaker in order to fund his plans for freedom. A girl cashier dies, and so Starling is now a double murderer and faces the hangman’s noose if caught.

The full history of Hammer Films
is far too complex for this feature, but suffice it to say the British company was founded in 1934, and is best known for – and synonymous with – its series of horror films in the 1950s and 60s. One of its best known directors was Val Guest, and it was he who brought Hell Is A City to the big screen in 1960.

DonaldThe cast, if not stellar by international standards, was solid, with key roles for Stanley Baker as Martineau, Donald Pleasance as the bookmaker Gus Hawkins, and Billie Whitelaw as Mrs Hawkins (left). Strangely, the key role of Don Starling was given to John Crawford, (below) a journeyman American actor whose stock in trade was tough guys and villains. His American accent is obvious throughout and, although he puts in a good performance, it stretches credibility to believe he is the same man who fought with Martineau in their school playground. Regarding the oddity of his accent, it has to be said that the rest of the cast went for Stage Northerner rather than attempt the distinctive Mancunian twang.

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Remember the opening titles
in the Police Squad/Naked Gun spoofs? The view from the driver’s seat as the squad car careens through the neon jungle on its way to the latest murder? This is precisely how Hell Is A City opens, complete with the sleazy night club jazz music. Clearly, viewers in the 1960s would not have sniggered as we might do today and, thankfully, the film itself doesn’t disappoint.

Moody monochrome is the order of the day. We might regard that as reverential, but it was probably just economics. There are some good Manchester locations for those older folks who can remember the city back then, and the moors to the east of the city, where Starling’s gang dumps the murdered bookie’s cashier are, of course, changeless. Incidentally, when a passing motorist discovers the girl’s body, I said to myself, “Surely, that looks like …..” And so it was – a drive on, drive off role for Warren Mitchell, well before his Alf Garnett heyday. (below)

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The film sticks pretty closely to the book in plot, dialogue and nuances. It is a tribute to Procter’s finely tuned ear for dialogue (he was himself a serving police officer for many years) that Val Guest’s screenplay and script remain faithful to the original. We meet Martineau’s neglected but rather prissy wife Julia (Maxine Audley) but whereas their relationship takes on a happier turn by the last pages of the novel, Val Guest leaves us wondering.

Martineau’s faithful dogsbody Deverey is rather smarter in the film than he is print, and his romance with the beautiful deaf mute Silver Steele is well-established in the book, whereas he meets her for the first time on screen. Silver’s encounter with the cornered Starling ends more happily on the screen than it does in the book.

As ever, with British films of this era, those with sharp eyes will spot a few faces who would go on to be familiar to television viewers, including a brief appearance by Doris Speed as a nurse, no doubt taking time away from her evening job of serving pints in The Rovers Return in Wetherfield.

A teaser for film buffs. There are two connections between this film and the cult Australian thriller Wake In Fright (1971). One is Donald Pleasence, but the other …. ? I have provided a pictorial clue (below)

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The film is, in short, excellent. It is available as a DVD, and if you want to read about the novel – also first class – then it just so happens that I can help …….

Hell Is A City by Maurice Procter

THE SLEEPWALKER . . . Between the covers

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In a fictional world overflowing with disfunctional detectives who happen to be rather good at their jobs, Joseph Knox has raised, or perhaps lowered, the bar considerably with his DC Aidan Waits. We first met Waits in Sirens (2017) and then in The Smiling Man (2018). Now, in The Sleepwalker, Knox takes us on another guided tour of the dystopian underbelly of contemporary Manchester.

TSTogether with his grotesque partner and immediate boss, DI Peter Sutcliffe, Waits always gets the shitty end of the stick. ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe is, you might say, a good old fashioned copper. Waits goes to meet him in a dingy rock-and-roll boozer:

“Sutty was standing in the corner, explaining something to one of the other customers. To make sure the man was really listening, he’d lifted him off the ground by his ears and begun banging his head into the wall to the beat of the drum.

He let the smile slide, dramatically, off his face when he saw me.

‘Oh’, he said, over the music. ‘It’s the great depression. Shouldn’t you be queuing up for a loaf of bread instead of buying beer?’ “

Waits and Sutcliffe have been assigned to a Death Watch. In hospital, a notorious serial killer nicknamed The Sleepwalker because of the bizarre circumstances of his arrest, is dying of cancer. Years ago, he was convicted of slaughtering a family – wife and children – and the older daughter’s body has never been found. In the faint hope that Martin Wick’s dying breath will reveal the final resting place of twelve year-old Lizzie Moore – a sombre echo of the misplaced faith that believed Ian Brady would finally say where he had buried Keith Bennett – Waits and Sutcliffe sit by the dying man’s bedside, their ears close to whatever utterance escapes his shriveled lips.

Why is Aidan Waits such a tortured character? Well, how long have you got? His childhood was loveless and chaotic, and spent largely in institutions where he rubbed shoulders with trainee failures, malcontents and killers. Echoing Nietzsche’s chilling remarks about the moral abyss, Waits has, more recently, gazed too long into a chasm inhabited by a repellent Manchester crime lord called Zane Carver. Carver has fed Waits’s drug habit, and the two have fought over women. Carver has a particular talent with women:

“Zain Carver was a magician when it came to ruining women’s lives.

He surrounded himself with these beautiful assistants and then delighted in sawing them up, making them disappear. Sometimes a new girl on his arm might end up on the game, or in hospital, or back with her parents feeling five years older, a permanent faraway look in her eyes.”

As distinctive as Knox is as a stylist, and as much as he is a master of the inky black metaphor, he has a tale to tell and a plot to spin. The sepulchral calm of Martin Wick’s closely guarded hospital room is shattered by a savage attack which Waits survives, but puts him at the head of the queue as the police and the gutter press search for scapegoats. With Carver having decided to exact revenge on Waits by donning his black cap and pronounced the death sentence, Waits is on the run both from the gangster and, no less implacably, his politically motivated senior officers, but he keeps them at bay. He discovers faint-but-fatal fault lines in the original case against Martin Wicks, and finds that both Kevin Blake, the detective who brought Wicks to justice, and Frank Moore, the father of the murdered children, still have songs to sing.

KnoxJoseph Knox writes like an angel. Possibly an Angel of Death, but he grasps the spluttering torch of English Noir once carried by such writers as Derek Raymond, and runs with such vigour that the flame burns brightly once again. He is not without humour, and there are many – if unrepeatable – gags exchanged between the cynical cops and their low-life prey. The politically correct nature of modern policing doesn’t escape his attention, either:

“The conference space and interview rooms had a bland, mass-produced, modern aesthetic. If Hitler’s bunker had been designed by Travelodge, it couldn’t have communicated quiet despair any more effectively.”

 No-one who has had the misfortune to require A & E treatment on any given weekend evening – in Manchester, Middlesborough, Maidenhead or Milton Keynes – will be unfamiliar with this baleful description, as Waits searches for a suspect:

“I looked about me. Bloodshed, fist-fights and stab wounds. Confused, stunned people, drunk, on drugs, with life-altering injuries. Stick-thin single mothers on food bank diets, with morbidly obese babies.”

Knox has his grim fun with a Manchester police force that is barely honest, city down-and-outs who have lost most of the trappings of humanity, and an infestation of tattooed, Spice-addicted thugs straight from Central Casting – with Hieronymus Bosch as the agency’s head of HR. He also leaves us with a delightfully enigmatic final few pages. The Sleepwalker is published by Doubleday and will be on the shelves from 11th July

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NIGHT WATCH . . . Between the covers

 

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David C Taylor,
the author of Night Watch, has been around the block. He says that he and his brother:
“..were free-range children in New York who early on discovered the joys of Times Square, the games arcades, the pool halls, and the jazz clubs.”

Despite this, Taylor went on to graduate from Yale. After volunteering with The Peace Corps he scratched out a living teaching and writing short stories, but eventually had to bite the commercial bullet and had a successful career as a film and TV screenwriter in Los Angeles. He introduced us to the tough 1950s New York cop Michael Cassidy in Night Life (2015) and followed it with Night Work (2017). Cassidy returns now, in Night Watch. He has an unusual background for a New York cop. His father, a refugee from Eastern Europe, is a successful Broadway producer. His godfather is Frank Costello, a Mafia boss.

Night Watch coverCassidy is an ex-serviceman, and in Night Watch he becomes involved in an issue which is way, way above his pay-grade. The initial reaction of the USA to former Nazis in the months immediately following May 1945 was simple – Hang ‘Em High. But as the government realised that highly trained German scientists and engineers were being harvested by the new enemy – Soviet Russia – the bar was significantly lowered, with the philosophy that these men and women might be bastards, but at least they’re our bastards.

One of Cassidy’s buddies sums up the dilemma perfectly:

“We fight them for years,. We’re told that they’re the worst of the worst, the end of civilisation and freedom if they win, and when it’s all over, the same guys who’ve been telling that stuff start bringing them over here to work for us.”

A concentration camp survivor, ostensibly just an old guy driving tourists around Central Park in his horse cab, but secretly hunting down those who imprisoned him and killed his family, is found dead with strange puncture wounds in his neck. A businessman dives through the high window of his hotel – without bothering to open it first – and no-one saw anything. Not the concierge, and especially not the dead man’s co-workers, who were in an adjacent room. Two deaths. Two cases which Cassidy’s boss wants put to bed as quickly as possible. Two lives snuffed out, and Cassidy senses a connection. A connection leading to money, national security, powerful people – and big, big trouble for a humble NYPD cop.

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Not only does Cassidy face a shitstorm of fury from major league conspirators, he has a more personal problem. Someone, maybe a vengeful con, or someone with a huge grudge, is out to kill him. The killer plays with him by trying to push him in front of a subway train, and then reshaping the woodwork of his front door with slugs from a sniper rifle. With a narrative conjuring trick half way through the book, Taylor merges the two threats to Cassidy, and from that point on we must fasten our seat belts for a very fast and bumpy ride.

Like many people, I only know New York in the 1950s from novels and movies. I don’t know for certain David C Taylor’s age and I suspect his 1954 New York would have been viewed through the eyes of a youngster, but, my goodness, what a vivid scene he sets, and what a gritty backdrop he paints for the deeds – and misdeeds – of Michael Cassidy. Who knows if this description is accurate, but more importantly it works like a dream, so who cares?

(The diner) “ …was a Buck Rogers dream of curved aluminium, big slanted windows, Formica-topped tables in weird shapes, and waitresses in high-waisted slacks, ruffled white shirts with black bowties, and funny little hats that looked like fezzes. To pay for all that the joint charged an exorbitant buck twenty-five for a plate of ham and eggs, toast and potatoes, but they threw in the coffee for free.”

There are one or two significant name drops which help boost authenticity, amongst them a guest appearance by the sinister head of the CIA, Allen Dulles. Cassidy himself doesn’t do wisecracks, but there is plenty of snappy dialogue and verbal slaps in the face to keep us awake. This, after a post mortem:

“ ‘And a couple of other things make him interesting ….’
‘Okay. What?’
‘He had his underpants on backward.’
‘Sure. Why not? What else?’
‘I found someone’s fingertip in his stomach.’ ”

Taylor joins an elite bunch of writers whose novels are set in those turbulent post-war years of urban America. Jim Thompson, Ed McBain, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Micky Spillane – there are some big, big names there, but Taylor (below) doesn’t disgrace himself in their company. Cassidy is believable, flawed, but honest and with that elusive moral imperative that he shares with the better-known heroes in the genre. He has limited means, but he’ll be damned if he allows himself to be trampled on.

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Night Watch is available in all formats and is published by Severn House.

David C Taylor has his own website, and you can find him on Twitter at @DTNewYorkNoir

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SLOW MOTION GHOSTS . . .Between the covers

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England. 11th April 1981. While the music charts bubble with the froth of Bucks Fizz, Shakin’ Stevens, Adam and the Ants and The Nolans, London – at least the place south of the river called Brixton – is aflame with violence, racial hatred and mayhem. As the police struggle to control the streets a middle aged Detective Inspector called Henry Hobbes is bused in to help. No matter that Hobbes – and many other senior detectives likewise – is a stranger to riot control, it is a case of all hands on deck.

SMG coverLater that year, with Brixton quieter, despite other English towns and cities erupting in copycat anger, Hobbes has become embroiled in a bitter internal dispute. A fellow copper, Charlie Jenkes (who rescued Hobbs from the mob on that fateful April night) after being indicted for savagely beating a black suspect, has taken his own life. And the officer who testified to Jenkes’s violence? Henry Hobbes, who, with that single act of honesty, is branded as a Judas by his own colleagues.

But now Hobbes has something to distract him from his disintegrating family life and his pariah status among fellow officers. A young man is found dead, wth his body gruesomely mutilated. Brendon Clarke was a minor celebrity, the lead singer with an aspiring band called Monsoon Monsoon, whose chief claim to fame is that they play the music of another dead rockstar – Lucas Bell. Bell’s celebrity rests on hs apparent suicide, his angst-ridden persona, and, most of all, his adoption of the identity of King Lost, a charismatic figure with a gruesome mask.

As Hobbes tries to unpick the complex knot which ties together the identities of Brendan Clarke and Lucas Bell, he discovers that the King Lost legend has its roots in a bizarre fantasy world created by a group of teenagers in the Sussex town of Hastings. With more murders being linked to the world of King Lost, Hobbes is drawn into an investigation which exposes child abuse, blackmail, madness and revenge.

Genre compartmentalising books is not always helpful, but it is fair to say that Noon’s previous novels have used tropes from science fiction, psychedelia and dystopian fantasy. Slow Motion Ghosts adopts conventions of the police procedural, but is more adventurous, asks more questions and has a distinctly noir-ish feel. Noon uses his knowledge of the music scene to bore down into the strange phenomenon of the celebrity cult, and the lengths to which worshippers of dead heroes are prepared to go in order to keep their fantasies alive.

Jeff Noon was born in Droylsden in 1957. He was trained in the visual arts, and was musically active on the punk scene before starting to write plays for the theatre. His first novel, Vurt, was published in 1993 and went on to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He reviews crime fiction for The Spectator.

Slow Motion Ghosts is published by Doubleday, and is out now.

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ON MY SHELF . . . The Boy In The Headlights

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Samuel Bjørk is the pen name of Norwegian novelist, playwright and singer/songwriter Frode Sander Øien. Øien wrote his first stage play at the age of twenty-one and has since written two highly acclaimed novels, released six albums, written five plays, and translated Shakespeare, all in his native Norway. Øien currently lives and works in Oslo.

His third crime novel, The Boy In The Headlights is due to be published by Doubleday on 21st March, and once again features the Special Investigations cops Holger Munch and Mia Krüger who will be no strangers to the readers who enjoyed their previous two cases.
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In The Boy In The Headlights, which is translated by Charlotte Barslund, Munch and Krüger try to nail a serial killer who has already struck on four occasions, each time leaving a clue to taunt the investigators. It becomes clear that the murders are linked to a bizarre incident fourteen years earlier, when a motorist, driving home through the a typical Norwegian winter’s night narrowly avoids running into an animal, frozen in the car’s headlights on the lonely road. Except this is no startled forest creature. It is a terrified boy, with deer antlers strapped to his head. Norwegian critics have nothing but praise for Bjørk and his writing:

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Any UK media enquiries should be addressed to Tom Hill at Transword Publishers thill@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk
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THE SMILING MAN . . . Between the covers

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Detective Constable Aidan Waits of Greater Manchester Police is a veritable ghost of a copper. Not that he is actually dead, you understand, more that because of previous misdeeds, he has been cast into eternal darkness, doomed forever to work the night shift in the dubious company of the unfortunately-named Detective Inspector Peter Sutcliffe. Rather like De Vliegende Hollander, they are fated to roam the backstreets and neon drags of Manchester forever, never finding harbour.

Except when they are called to one of the city’s immense and ornate Victorian hotels, apparently in mothballs pending a change of ownership, but open enough for the security guard to be found senseless, knocked on the head with a fire extinguisher, and in one of the ‘empty’ rooms, a man to be sitting in a chair, stone dead, with his face composed into a dreadful grimace that looks like a smile, but has nothing to do with happiness.

TSMThis is all too much like hard work for Sutcliffe, but despite warnings from his saturnine superior, Superintendent Parr, Waits digs deeper. He uncovers a labyrinthine series of connections between an absent solicitor doing his rich-white-man things among the bar girls of Thailand, an apparently gay businessman and his estranged wife, the corpse (now renamed The Smiling Man), and another hotel room, its floor saturated with pint after pint of human blood.

The plot is gloriously, madly complex, but I am reminded of masterpieces by Raymond Chandler such as The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye where you are never completely certain about what is happening, but you are swept along by the sheer brilliance of the writing. We are set an initial puzzle by Joseph Knox, which appears to be separate from the main narrative. We read of an almost Dickensian criminal gang, where a brutal man uses a young lad to gain entrance to prosperous houses and, when the boy’s work is done, the man exacts terrible violence on the residents. It may take you a while to work out the significance of these episodes but when you do, it is less the sound of a penny dropping than the dreadful resonance of the executioner’s axe striking the block.

KnoxThis is little short of a modern masterpiece. You might imagine Joseph Knox (right) to be a weathered, life-weary cynical misanthrope, hunched in a corner of the pub, savouring a roll-up, rather like a latter day Derek Raymond, but anyone who has had the privilege of meeting Joseph will know that this is far from the case. He is well versed in the art of Noir, though, as he revealed when he spoke to us around the time that his first novel, Sirens, was published.

“James Ellroy is very important to me. As are the obvious hard noir guys like David Peace etc – and the weirder ones like James Sallis. The biggest influence on me as a writer, though, is Ross MacDonald. Archer is a man trying to understand people, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. As the world gets crueler, that’s more important. Certainly as Aidan finds himself surrounded by enemies and, at a certain point in the novel I think it’s fair to say, finds himself totally doomed, his sympathy – rather than his bravery – is what I admire most.”

Like all fine novels, The Smiling Man tugs our sensibilities this way and that. Despite his personal traumas, Aidan Waits is a man with almost unlimited compassion. Once again, the comparison that leaps out from the page to me is between Aidan Waits and Derek Raymond’s nameless Detective Sergeant. Their fellowship with the dead is absolute and boundless; their desire for resolution and retribution burns like a flame. Of course, Manchester and its heady mixture of vice and vivacity features as a character in itself. Of his relationship with the city, Knox said:

I grew up in Stoke on Trent and, to me, Manchester was the big city. It was where I dreamt of running away to, where I did run away to when the time came. It was the first place I ever really had my heart broken. The first place I had my nose broken. I failed in every way possible when I lived there – financially, romantically and personally. But I always appreciated it; to be surrounded by beautiful buildings, many of which clashed with garish modern things; to be surrounded by more art, artists, love and imagination than I could understand; to walk from one side of the city to another over the course of several hours, watching all kinds of strange, new people. The more I write and think about it, the more I love it. But I know my life would be very different if I’d stayed. Perhaps I never would have made it out of those basement bars Aidan’s stuck in?”

The Smiling Man is published by Doubleday,
and will be available on 8 March.

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GETTING CARTER … Between the covers

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One of the many feelings I had after finishing Nick Triplow’s superb account of the life and writing of Ted Lewis was that it was all such a long time ago. The crucial decade from 1970 to 1980 just seems – and there is no other phrase that fits – like another country. A summary, then, for people who may not even have been born when Lewis was writing. Ted Lewis was born in 1940 in Manchester. After the war he and his parents moved to Barton on Humber, in North Lincolnshire. On leaving school, Lewis, a talented artist, traveled every day across the River Humber to art school in Hull. After graduating, Lewis found work further south with various advertising agencies, but his abiding passion was his writing. As well as enjoying a drink, however, Lewis was a serial womaniser. Lewis’s old Barton friend, Mike Shucksmith, recalls that the writer had a way with women.

“There was something about him that snapped their knicker elastic. I couldn’t see it, but whatever it was, he had it.”

Jacks_Return_HomeIn 1965, All the Way Home and All the Night Through was published. It is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel, but Lewis’s breakthrough came in 1970 with the publication of Jack’s Return Home. The title was, bizarrely, taken from a spoof melodrama acted out by Tony Hancock, Hattie Jacques, Sid James and Bill Kerr as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour. The novel, however, has few laughs. It describes the revenge mission of a London-based enforcer, Jack Carter, as he returns to his northern home town to investigate the death of his brother. The novel was adapted and filmed as Get Carter, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fame – and money – did not sit comfortably on Lewis’s shoulders, however. A mixture of drink and personal demons led to the break-up of his marriage, and a solitary return to Barton to live with his widowed mother. He died there, of heart failure connected to his ruinous drinking, in 1982.

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Nick Triplow (above) examines Lewis’s other books, all concerned with the dark side of British criminal life, far far away from the cosy crime novels where long-suffering policemen chased cheerily crooked villains. One of the most controversial later novels was Billy Rags (1973) – the story of a convicted robber and his attempts to escape from prison. Many of the book’s key moments are, word for word, identical to a memoir written, from his prison cell, by the ‘celebrity criminal’ John McVicar. A final novel, GBH, published in 1980, tells the story of a doomed London gangster trying to escape vengeful rivals by moving to a windswept and isolated coastal village in Lincolnshire.

91Kh85WdIYLThe centrepiece of Triplow’s book is, quite rightly, concerned with the novel itself, and its journey from a brutally honest and ground-breaking novel through to a partial re-imagining as one of the finest crime films ever made. Of Jack Carter, Triplow stresses that, despite the iconic image created by Michael Caine and director Mike Hodges

“it’s important to place him in context as Lewis originally intended. An ultra-real small town enforcer, violent, sadistic, irretrievably flawed, shouldering the burden of guilt; one of us maybe, if we dare to think it, taken a wrong turn, corrupted and unflinching.”

It would take a reader with a heart of stone and devoid of empathy to finish this book with anything other than a sense of sadness. The heartbreak is, of course, in our wisdom after the event, in our knowing that for Lewis the 1970s – the Get Carter years – were the apogee of his personal success and realisation that his immense talent had been recognised and rewarded, both financially and in terms of reputation.

GBHAside from describing what must have been harrowing conversations with Lewis’s widow and children, Triplow employs both the depth and breadth of his knowledge of British crime fiction to convince us just how good Ted Lewis was. It is intriguing that Triplow, supported by no less an authority than the magisterial Derek Raymond, makes a fascinating case for GBH being the apotheosis of Lewis’s talent, despite the groundbreaking style and success of Jack’s Return Home. Getting Carter is a sober and sombre account of the life of a man whose talent both defined and destroyed him, and Triplow makes no attempt to sanitise his subject. Lewis was clearly a man of huge personal charm when not in the grip of drink, but from the early days of illegally bought pints of beer in the 1950s through to the grim years of decline and death, alcohol had him firmly by the throat.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in the evolution of British crime fiction should read Getting Carter and celebrate the brilliance of the man at the centre of the story. It would be salutary, however, to keep Shelley’s words in mind:

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Getting Carter is published by No Exit Press and is on sale now.

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SOHO DEAD … Between the covers

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Kenny Gabriel is a street-smart, wise-cracking and self-mocking PI. Given another accent, he could be cruising the neon-lit strip malls of 1950s Los Angeles. But his accent, his gags, his mixture of despair and optimism, all have ‘London’ stamped through them like a pink and sickly stick of seaside rock. Gabriel, had he been on the official side of law and order, would have been retired by now, with an enviable pension, a fond reputation down at the local ‘nick’, and plenty of potential back-handers for his advice on corporate security.

But Mr G is all but penniless. His fifty seven years on this fair planet have produced only a tenuous tenancy on a shabby flat in Soho, and a badly paid job chasing down people who have reneged on a hire car contract, or swindled their partner out of the mortgage on their dispiriting semi-detached house in some grim London suburb.

Soho DeadSo, when Gabriel answers the door bell one day only to behold the wedge-shaped and granite faced personage of Farrelly – chauffeur, enforcer and general gofer for Frank Parr – he is led, like a naughty boy tweaked by his ear, to Parr’s sumptious office building. To say that Parr – now a respectable media mogul – has something of a history, is rather like saying that Vlad The Impaler was someone of interest to Amnesty International. Parr made his money – loads of it, and of the distinctly dirty variety – by publishing magazines which were not so much Top Shelf as stacked in the stratosphere miles above the earth’s surface.

Parr has a job for Gabriel. Harriet ‘Harry’ Parr – daughter of the boss and senior executive of Griffin Media – has disappeared, and her father wants her found. Gabriel has that unfortunate knack, common with fictional PIs, of finding dead bodies. Not only that, he uncovers a veritable rats’ nest of corruption, violent cynicism and corporate greed.

There’s a definite seam of Raymond Chandler running through Soho Dead. Saying that is neither inappropriate flattery nor damnation by faint praise. The plot has the onion skin quality of the great man’s best books, as layer after layer gets peeled back as we get drawn closer to the heart of things. Gabriel’s wisecracks are not as good as Philip Marlowe’s, but then neither are those of any fictional PI since those glorious days. When Gabriel blags his way into a sex club and is then brought face to face with its lady proprietor, it had me thinking of Marlowe’s legendary encounter with General Sternwood in The Big Sleep.

“The woman in the armchair had too much bone structure and not enough skin. Her short hair was grey, but she had young eyes. Time, and whatever had ravaged her face, had spared them, a pair of emeralds pushed into a parchment skull.”

Gabriel is terminally weary, but he forces himself forward as he runs the gauntlet of blows from men and women who are more powerful and less honorable than he is. In the end, he survives, but ever diminished by the deeds of those who share his stage. All that remains are memories and phantoms.

Greg Keen“For a while, I wandered the streets of Soho, as I had on the day I’d first visited forty years ago. Doorways whispered to me and ghosts looked down from high windows.”

This is a brilliant start to what I anticipate will be a highly regarded series. Soho Ghosts is due out in 2018, but in the meantime, trust me when I say that Greg Keen (right) drags the tarpaulin off one of the oldest established crime fiction genres, dusts it down, gives it a thorough service, polish and tune-up – and delivers something that not only gleams, but purrs with power and authenticity. Greg Keen’s website is here.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Oswald & Westworth

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The Postman Delivers…except that he didn’t, quite. My regular chap is resigned to regular and frequent booky parcels, and always leaves them by the servants’ entrance if he can’t make me hear, or I am somewhere away on my rambling ancestral estate. But regular chap is on holiday, so replacement chap took yesterday’s books back to the sorting office, from where I had to collect them. The little red ticket from the postie wasn’t enough to prove my identity, neither was my haughty, “Don’t you know who I used to be..?” So, I had to show them the scandalously unflattering photo on my driving licence, the one where I look like one of Bertie Wooster’s less intelligent friends. But, eventually, the books were collected, and they were well worth the effort.

back-cover007First out of its protective wrapper was the latest from one of my favourite British writers, Frank Westworth. He has created a noirish world of grimy London music venues, peopled with frequently freakish characters and misfits, all of whom live out the heartbreaking three-chord trick of the Blues in their real lives. Presiding over the mayhem is a moody and reclusive investigator, cum killer, cum doer-of-dirty-deeds for the British establishment. His name is JJ Stoner, and as well as bending his guitar strings into shivering blue notes, he has an uneasy and unique relationship with three weird sisters. Note the absence of capitals, as these ladies are not the cauldron-stirring crones of The Scottish Play, but three violent and devious sexual predators. We have met Charity and Chastity in the first two books of the trilogy, but as Westworth wraps the series up, he introduces us to Charm.

troc2What happens in the book? I can do no better than to quote a line from the best motorbike song ever written. Like the biker outlaw James in Richard Thompson’s awesome Vincent Black Lightning 1952, JJ is “running out of road …running out of breath,” Stoner is surrounded by brutal enemies on all sides, and all the old acquaintances from whom he might expect a favour or three are walking by on the other side. This is one book which will certainly not end up in a charity shop or casually passed on to friends, because mine came with a personal touch. You folks are definitely not going to lay hands on my copy, and I’m afraid you will have to wait until the end of next month for yours. In the meantime, you can check out a mischievous and beautifully written piece by Frank Westworth in our features section, and watch this space for my full review of The Redemption of Charm.

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Having punched the air (in a elderly gentleman kind of way) at receiving the new Frank Westworth, I then joyfully repeated the gesture when I found that my second parcel contained the new novel by James Oswald. Apart from having one of the more interesting ( bonesand demanding) day jobs of current authors, Oswald has achieved what might have seemed to be an impossible task. He has created a engaging and totally believable Scottish copper who, over the space of six previous novels, has sharp-elbowed his way in the room crowded with such characters as John Rebus and Logan McRea.

Oswald’s Edinburgh Detective is Tony McLean, and Written In Bones has McLean once again up to his elbows in a sinister and mysterious murder. A body is found in a tree in The Meadows, Edinburgh’s scenic parkland, and the forensics suggest the corpse has fallen from a great height.

McLean has to decide whether it was an accident, or a murder designed to send a chilling message. His work is made more complex by the fact that the dead man was a disgraced ex-cop turned criminal kingpin who has reinvented himself as a philanthropist. McLean’s investigation takes him back to Edinburgh’s haunted past, and through its underworld. He is forced to rub shoulders with some of the city’s most dangerous people and, in extreme contrast, folk who are among the most vulnerable on the capital’s streets.

Oswald’s day job? He farms on 350 acres in Fife, and when he is not delivering lambs or tending his pedigree Highland cattle, he writes best-selling crime novels such as this one, which is published by Penguin, and is out now.

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