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Noir

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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HOUSE OF BONES … Between the covers

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Imagine, if you will, a roomful of marketing executives, PR gurus and recruitment consultants all clustered round a flip chart. Too terrible to contemplate already? Bear with me, as this only imaginary. Their task? To come up with crime fiction’s next female superstar private investigator. A Jack Reacher in a skirt, a John Rebus in a Kylie Jenner-endorsed little black dress, maybe? Never in all their hours of creative brainstorming would they have come up with Annie Hauxwell’s Catherine Berlin. She is as cranky as hell, rather bedraggled, and just a few months short of her concessionary bus pass. Oh, yes, I almost forgot. She is an addict – her drug of choice, or perhaps necessity, is heroin, but she will make serious inroads into a bottle of Talisker if the China White is not available. Or – and this is in extremis – a few codeine will have to do.

house-of-bonesIt’s always fun to come late to an established series that has many established followers, if only to see what all the fuss is about. I had covered Catherine Berlin in writing brief news grabs, but House of Bones was to be my first proper read. There is a wonderfully funereal atmosphere throughout the book. Sometimes this is literal, as at the beginning:

 “Catherine Berlin followed a hearse through the grand arch of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium. She wondered how long it would be before she passed under it feet first.”

One of the corpses in the narrative – and there are several – is found in the crypt of St Bride’s, Fleet Street, and later in the novel Berlin gatecrashes a society funeral and allows her few remaining heart strings to be tugged when she hears the evocative words of her mother’s favourite hymn:

“Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.”

 The dark, end-of-days mood of the book is underlined by the dismal weather. I was reminded of the old soldiers’ song from The Great War, sung to the tune of ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.’ They sang:

“Raining, raining, raining: always bloody well raining:
Raining all the morning, and raining all the night.”

Hauxwell gives us London rain, cold, dispiriting, grey and naggingly pervasive. She also gives us Hong Kong rain, which is hot, loud and has the intensity of special effects in a disaster movie. Berlin’s London milieu is bleak. She treads the streets of Limehouse, Wapping, and Leyton. These eastern parts have modern millionaire housing developments and expensively imagined conversions of a Victorian past, but that past is never far away, like a cold sore disguised with cosmetics. The river is also a baleful presence in what becomes a nightmarish environment.

Berlin is hired by Burghley LLP:

“ a boutique outfit established by spooks and former Whitehall types. They offered discreet investigative and intelligence services. Deep pockets essential.”

Her task? To investigate the strange case of a teenage boy who has been arrested for assault. He is Chinese, and attends an exclusive public school. All fees are provided by an apparently charitable organisation which takes Chinese orphans and gives them a sociological blood transfusion, the plasma being supplied by the British aristocracy. The problem is, though, Philip Chen’s alleged victim has disappeared, and only exists on grainy footage from a CCTV camera. Who is he? Where is he? What provoked the violent assault?

Berlin rapidly becomes aware that Philip’s most visible patron is a prodigiously wealthy and well connected member of the House of Lords, Jack Haileybury. He sits, spiderlike, in a web of his own creation, which is actually a converted warehouse in Wapping. He has expensive tastes, both in narcotics, oak-aged single malt whisky and, more troubling, teenage boys.

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Sometimes aided and sometimes hindered by a manic and rather disturbed policeman, DC Terence Bryant, Berlin hacks her way through the long grass of the British establishment to uncover an abomination which dwarfs some of the recent real-life exposures of what celebrities get up to. She travels to Hong Kong, and then mainland China in pursuit of the truth, but when she finally has it, she is made to wish she had looked the other way. The title? It becomes horribly appropriate only in the last few pages of the novel, but to say more would be to spoil your experience of Annie Hauxwell’s dark and compelling piece of English Noir.

House Of Bones is available in Kindle or as a paperback.

TESTING THE WATERS OF NOIR by Andrez Bergen

Noir is, in some respects, the water of life.

It can be applied to so many different kinds of creative media: writing, film-making, photography, art, comic books, fashion, even music. For me, noir’s best application is when it is combined with other genres, veering from pulp, crime and science fiction to gothic horror.

Hence you’ll witness Ed Brubaker taking varied routes in his comics like Fatale (horror noir), Criminal (crime, obviously) and The Fade Out (noir served straight).

With my own approach to noir, I’ll readily ‘fess up to inspiration from Brubaker, along with the style’s pioneers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane and Ross Macdonald.

I’m forever scouring or re-reading their work, and as a movie buff am enamored with cinematic adaptations like John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, or The Big Sleep as channeled by Howard Hawks.

Coming from a twenty-first century perspective in which a sense of the meta and pop-cultural references hold sway, you’ll find a million and one allusions to these gems between the lines of my comic books and novels – respect where it’s due, and all that jazz.

Hence characters and room numbers and hotel names mirror those found within the worlds created by Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, et al. Choices of drinks, taxi companies, even clipped moments of dialogue.

But as a writer I like to distill the noir into other elements, as I already mentioned, to create a different kind of tapestry.

FRONT COVER_BLACK SAILS DISCO INFERNOWhat noir enables me to do is isolate those genres and render them a little different, whether it be an homage to golden age comic books from the 1940s (Bullet Gal), or rebooting a medieval romance (Black Sails, Disco Inferno). The standards of noir – a certain sense of cynicism, the not-so-happy outcome, mood, drinks, and cutting dialogue – bring out the best in any such side-step.

While some would decry taking a fine Scotch whisky like Bunnahabhain ($300 plus) and mixing it with water straight from a city faucet, I’d go so far as to assert that this adulterated tap water adds flavor – a gloriously varied one, depending on the metropolis in question.

Just skip the debased local H20 I discovered once in Hong Kong.

 

Andrez Bergen

Andrez Bergen’s novel Black Sails, Disco Inferno is out now via Open Books.

His seventh novel Bullet Gal will be published through Roundfire Books in November.

BULLET GAL novel cover

THE POET AND THE NOIR NOVELIST

Henry Treece was a poet, and a writer of historical fiction for children. In 1939 he took the job of teacher of English at Barton-upon-Humber Grammar School. When war came, he joined the RAF as an intelligence officer, and was well acquainted with the many air bases in Lincolnshire. This poem dates from that time.

Lincolnshire Bomber Station

All well and good, you may say, but what has this to do with crime fiction? The connection is that one of the pupils at the Grammar School was a boy called Ted Lewis. Throughout his time at the school he had excelled in art and English, and when he left, it was his ambition to go on to art school. His parents were against the idea, and it was only the intervention of Henry Treece on Ted’s behalf that persuaded them to allow him to go.

Lewis’s first novel, All The Way Home and All The Night Through, was published in 1969, but it was the 1971 novel Jack’s Return Home, later filmed as Get Carter, which was to make Lewis one of the immortals of crime fiction writing. Below, Treece and Lewis, both busy at their typewriters.

Treece Lewis

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