Category: books

Only almost 30 years late…

One of the problems of days only having 24 hours in them is that it doesn’t possibly give you enough time to get everything done. I’m not talking about the mundane day to day stuff, but more like, well… I thought I’d have mastered at least fifteen languages by now, and be a 7th dan black belt in something obscure and dangerous. And it means that oftentimes things slip the net.

Getting stuck into the works of Ian Rankin is one of them, I’m ashamed to say. A name that is essentially a byword for peak British crime writing, and I haven’t managed to get there yet… but thankfully I’ve managed to put it right.

I’m so glad I did. Rankin’s words have been dissected by hundreds of much worthier voices (and much more on-the-ball voices) but I can easily see Rankin’s work nestling in alongside my all time favourites and biggest influences. There is a bravery, a poeticism, an economical forthright darkness that had me enthralled. One of my favourite descriptions of Adrian McKinty’s work is ‘this is hard boiled crime fiction with a poet’s touch‘ (Peter Blauner), and that felt resonant here too – and it was reading Rankin’s praise of McKinty that reminded me I had to get onto Knots and Crosses, the first of Rankin’s iconic Rebus series.

In doing so I have found another mesmerising literary voice whose work I can’t wait to press right through. I have ordered the next ten Rebus books as a start. It’s not often I’ll be so impetuous but on this occasion I’ve no doubt it’s the right move.

Wait, is that the doorbell? Please be the postman with a sizeable book-shaped parcel…

 

Rogue Lawyer…

Grabbed this one, John Grisham’s Rogue Lawyer, while I was at Copenhagen airport, and dug straight into it on the flight home.

Grisham’s writing is, as always, dependable and engaging, and the story of a lawyer who will represent literally anyone, and the scrapes that might cause, is one that I enjoyed. It read much more like a compendium than a stand alone novel – I’m not sure that’s a gripe, more of an observation. There were strands weaving through four fairly distinct stories, so it was like reading four shorts.

The courtroom settings and procedural thrills are Grisham at his purest, while a few critics have noted that this is Grisham on autopilot. However, if you enjoy your Grisham novels (and I have been known to myself) then you’ll find this a breezy, engaging yarn.

A pint of the black stuff…

The Sean Duffy series became a favourite long before this sixth instalment, but this could be the best yet. Now a firm calendar highlight, the release of a new Duffy book guarantees a darkly funny, gripping ride with a cast of characters that I now find indispensable.

For me personally, Adrian McKinty is a close to literary royalty as it gets, and he consistently delivers the kind of prose, plots, twists and dialogue that have me in awe every single time. Whenever I am asked for my list of authors who inspire me, his is the first name out every time.

I took Police At The Station And They Don’t Look Friendly with me on a little trip away to Copenhagen with my wife – our first just the two of us since our first daughter was born seven years ago. I don’t think my wife got more than two words out of me on the flight over, and I think they were ‘coffee, please’ (she’s a good ‘un, she really is). Entranced is the word.

I finished it sometime in the wee hours of our second night there – and was immediately gutted it was over. Duffy now in his late 30s, wrestling with fatherhood and his career, not to mention all the parties whose feathers he has ruffled in the previous five books, is a stone cold hero of modern crime literature – an ace, layered, caustic, witty protagonist that you’d just love a pint of the black stuff with. I can’t wait to see Duffy shell-suited to the max in the nineties, tackling banking corruption and financial collapse in the noughties and doing, well, who in the merry hell knows what with Brexit and Trump when he eventually gets to this decade.

If you haven’t found McKinty and the Duffy books yet, please get your act together sharpish. You will not be disappointed.

From Bloody Scotland to Deep Down Dead…

When Deep Down Dead was first published as an ebook in October, I managed to convince myself to wait for the paperback in early January. I was very excited to read it, and had been for years – so I thought a couple more months couldn’t hurt.

Then the reviews started coming in – five stars upon five stars, with some of the biggest names in crime writing on both sides of the Atlantic weighing in with heavy praise and before I knew it, I was bursting to read it even more. The paperback couldn’t arrive quickly enough.

The reason I was so excited is because I was actually present when the book was pitched as part of the Pitch Perfect contest at Bloody Scotland 2014 (a hell an event, by the way). I sat there (having just signed with my own literary agent, tentatively dipping my little toe into the literary waters) and listened in awe as Steph Broadribb span a fascinating yarn about a female bounty hunter in Florida, drawing from her own experiences training as a bounty hunter in California – I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was a book I wanted to read immediately.

Prior to that event, and for a good year after, I never once made the link that Steph was in fact Crime Thriller Girl, the popular crime blogger whose reviews, articles and recommendations I had always followed and enjoyed. It was only when word started to get out about ‘the book with the female bounty hunter in Florida’ that the penny began to drop. I was thrilled and delighted to hear that I was actually going to get to read that exciting story, that Steph was going to be published, and that that same story that got me hooked in that pitching contest was going to be her debut.

Regarding the book itself, there are far more eminent crime writers out there whose words carry far more weight than my own – but I just love what Steph has done, how she has delivered it, and what a great series (I hope!) she has set up. I’m fully invested in Lori Anderson, JT and Dakota, and am so excited to see what happens next. If you like your thrillers fast, urgent and gripping, with a great, fresh, relatable protagonist, in a setting that drips with intrigue and genuine authenticity, then Deep Down Dead will be right up your street.

As I’m learning, in crime publishing you tend to find just the nicest people – and Steph is no exception. She has been so kind, generous and encouraging towards myself, in ways that I never expected or assumed.  Make no mistake, Crime Thriller Girl is one of the good guys… and to see this book go from beginning to such a spectacularly successful end is so very pleasing.

Realising I’m a Lehane fanboy and chucking out old superlatives…

It has been pointed out to me more than a few times that I can be a bit OTT when it comes to explaining things I liked or enjoyed. A particularly good episode of The Apprentice can quickly become ‘the best thing I’ve ever watched’, and a fresh piece of melon is sometimes ‘the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted’. It means that when I describe something I tend to throw in the big guns so quickly that they lose all meaning – and it’s something I think a lot of people are guilty of, to some extent. I’m all for being positive, but here I’m going to try not to rely on my old tropes. Words like unbelievable and incredible are banned here (for this post at least). Here goes…

Discovering a new author is a joy, and it always has been. Discovering a new author whose work thrills you and seems to connect with you time and time again is a step further than that. When writing too, finding that someone who inspires, informs and delights is also a watershed moment. That’s how I feel at the moment with Dennis Lehane.

Yes, I’m years too late. Quite literally decades too late. I know his books have already been dissected and pawed over by millions of readers already, but that means nothing to me, aside from confirming to me that I’m in the right place, and that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I’ve read a handful of Lehane’s books now, and have been more and more taken with each novel – and the last one I read, Darkness, Take My Hand, has immediately become one of my favourite books of all time. And no, I’m not resorting to my old outlandish descriptions for things that perhaps don’t deserve it. I genuinely see it as a cornerstone book in my own development as both a reader and a writer.

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It is the second book in the Kenzie & Gennaro series, about two private investigators in Boston and their adventures. On this occasion, the past has come back to bite Patrick Kenzie in the form of a serial killer, who gruesomely terrorises Patrick’s old neighbourhood as part of a grander historical plan.

It was published in 1996, but it reads like the top crime fiction bestseller of 2017. Or 2018. Or 2019… Point is, there’s a freshness, a timelessness, a pointed transient quality that lifts the book out of a place in time and puts it in the here and now of whenever the here and now happens to be. I’ll read it again in a few years and still be taken by it.

Something I’m trying to learn about putting into my own work is layers, and I think I try to hard at it to get it right. Lehane’s work is full of layers, and it all feels so effortless yet so keenly worked. Social commentary, existentialism, politics, life, love, the hereafter… It’s all here, and the work feels so enriched and multi-faceted because of it. The result is challenging and rewarding for the reader. Something I constantly despise is the snobbery in the literary world towards crime books and their merits in being able to tackle bigger things. I assure you, my thoughts were more provoked, teased, prodded and bullied during this novel than with anything of a supposedly more literary nature – the only difference being that Lehane doesn’t seem so keen to point out how clever and high-brow he is being. Lesson for me to take on board here – you don’t need to sound like a patronising windbag in order to tackle themes you might think you shouldn’t.

And on this topic, Lehane doesn’t shoehorn it in. He doesn’t bring up the socio-economic differences between race and class because he’s making a grander point off the page – it is here because it benefits the story and the world our characters exist in. It makes it more nuanced, more varied, more real. Layers.

On the topic of his world, it is a meticulously detailed landscape which is just as much a character as any human voice in the novel. The streets, the neighbourhood, the atmosphere, are all very much a part of the story. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I’ve never left. It’s a testament to Lehane’s powers of both observation and descriptive talent that I feel as embedded in the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston as the characters. And again, you’re never bludgeoned with it. It’s just… there. And it’s just… happening.

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The characters are typically varied, rounded and masterfully drawn, and again it is that testament of getting the reader to know and understand that characters without bashing you ever the head with it. Histories are shared and explained without you noticing. Personalities are shown but never told. The reader falls into it all and becomes part of the cast of characters, a Houdini-like sleight of hand trick that has happened before you know it has. Kenzie & Gennaro are unlike any characters I’ve come across. They are bold, brave, sensitive and damaged, but in ways that don’t rely on old conventions or lame pointers. Layers again. Another trick author’s try so hard to pull is to make the audience care for the protagonist – Lehane manages this here again like David Copperfield with a pen. It’s done before I know it. A little misdirection here, and hey presto, I’m following Kenzie & Gennaro until the bitter end.

Plot. It’s surprising and terrifying. I’ll give nothing away, but it’s an unravelling onion of the darkest corners human beings have, and what pushes people into them. Every time you think our characters have a handle on things, the rug isn’t so much pulled as detonated with a case of C4. It moves at such a speed that managing to evoke the care for character and environment as already mentioned is a miraculous achievement. I’d finished the book before I even got to grips with how much I was enjoying it, and I didn’t want it to end – but I hoped the end would bring safety to the characters and neighbourhood.

I’m going to call it a day there, but the third Kenzie & Gennaro book is sitting on my shelf behind me. I’ll be into it before the week is out I’m sure. But I’ve learned so much from reading this one, lessons I hope to take forward myself. With your writing, you can go for it, in every sense of the word. There’s no point otherwise. Don’t idle in neutral. Take it to the readers. Ignore convention and snobbery. Find that voice in you that won’t shut up, and make it impossible to ignore. If you do you might just write something that someone will call the best thing ever. Whoops. Couldn’t help it.