John J. Niven- Cold Hands

You thought you could leave the past behind. Think again. Donnie Miller counts himself lucky. Living in a beautiful, spacious house in the wild and remote landscape of central Canada, he spends his days writing for the local newspaper, working on a film script, and acting as house-husband. After a troubled and impoverished upbringing in Scotland, he now has all he wants: a caring wife, a bright and happy son, a generous father-in-law. As the brutal northern winter begins to bite, he can sit back and enjoy life. But his peace is soon broken. There are noises in the nearby woods, signs of some mysterious watcher. When the family dog disappears, Donnie makes a horrifying discovery. Is it wolves, as the police suspect, or something far more dangerous, far darker? What secrets has Donnie been keeping? And why does he have the terrible sense that his dream was never going to last?

John Niven is perhaps better known for darkly witty satires, ‘Kill Your Friends’, ‘The Amateurs’ and ‘The Second Coming’ so I was interested to read this, his first foray into the world of crime writing with the skilful insertion of a ‘J’ to differentiate this from his normal fare. And what a completely gripping, criminal smorgasbord of brilliant and blood-soaked delights it is as you find yourself, in the words of Irvine Welsh, “trampling through a moral minefield.”

Donnie Miller leads an unassuming life in a remote area of Canada in an absolutely beautiful house, with his upwardly mobile and loaded wife, his young son and whiles away his time as a film reviewer for the local newspaper, fortuitously part of the empire of his father-in -law. The only signs of strain in Donnie’s life is fitting into the influential circles his wife moves in but this is a minor problem as Donnie’s past will come back to haunt him with devastating consequences for himself and his family. By carefully interweaving the events of Donnie’s youth growing up in the relative poverty and social deprivation of Scotland, the story is punctuated throughout by positively Irvine Welsh-esque interludes depicting his cruel actions as a member of a gang intent on bullying and victimising a boy who epitomises everything they are not. Written in vernacular and in a blunt, brutal but ultimately quite affecting style, these interludes put the character of Donnie at odds with his portrayal now as a family man and this, for me, works perfectly within the structure of the book. There is also a very poignant portrayal of his would-be attacker as their world has been shattered by the events of this childhood and we bear witness to them rebuilding their life, plotting and scheming to avenge the crimes of the past. It becomes obvious to the reader that Donnie’s peace will be shattered and yes, you do have to suspend your disbelief somewhat at this point, as the past violently catches up with him in an explosion of revenge and hatred from a very unlikely aggressor and you find your whole perception of Donnie as a good guy challenged at every turn. I liked the way that by depicting Donnie as a film reviewer, Niven then sets out to make the denouement of the novel descend into the most brilliant and unbelievable violence mirroring the ‘schlock horror’ of some of the best straight to DVD films, so that as a reader you are metaphorically looking through your fingers as the violence is ramped up further but remains as compulsive as it is unbelievable.

 Therein lies my warning to the more sensitive reader that this is not one for the faint-hearted and if Danny Boyle is looking for a new film project after his Olympic shennanigans I think that he and Niven could have a great collaborative effort bringing this to the big-screen. Despite its slight faults this was a totally enjoyable although blood-soaked read and with the promise of another thriller or two appearing in the next couple of years I can’t wait to see what Niven comes up with next…

 Check out this interview with John J. Niven at Shots Crime and Thriller Ezine with L. J .Hurst

 (Thanks to Alun at Random House for supplying a reading copy)


  1. Thanks for this review. It is indeed interesting to find out how Niven’s approached doing a crime novel. The plot sounds like an interesting weaving together of past and present and I’m glad it worked for you. I may read it but I think I’ll wait until a better time for a blood-soaked read, even if it’s not gratuitous.

  2. Hmm. It doesn’t really sound like this book is for me. I think I spend too long in the countryside by myself to start spooking myself with a book like this. And the Danny Boyle suggestion doesn’t appeal either. Again, nice to read a review about a book completely new to me.

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