20th Anniversary #BlogTour- J.J. Connolly- Layer Cake @vivajjconnolly “Layer Cake remains a classic of London crime, and a lucid and compelling tale of the criminal underworld.” @Duckbooks

Layer Cake, a metaphor for the many murky layers of the criminal world, is set in modern day London and features smooth-talking drug dealer X who has a plan to quietly bankroll enough cash to retire before his thirtieth birthday. Operating under the polished veneer of a legitimate businessman, his mantra is to keep a low profile and run a tight operation until it’s time to get out .

When kingpin Jimmy Price asks him to find the wayward daughter of a wealthy socialite who’s been running around with a cokehead, he accepts the job with the promise that after this he can leave the criminal world behind with Jimmy’s blessing. Oh, and he needs to find a buyer for two million ecstasy pills acquired by a crew of lowly, loud-mouth gangsters, the Yahoos. Simple enough, until an assassin named Klaus arrives to scratch him off his list, revealing this job is much more than it seems at first…

In much the same way as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting defined a generation in Scottish fiction, I believe that Layer Cake did much the same for London based crime fiction. The influence of this book on some of the best known London noir crime writers is inescapable, and J. J. Connolly really set the bar high for those following in his wake. It’s been a real pleasure dusting off my old copy of this and entering this violent and visceral world once again…

The characterisation of this disparate band of gangsters and wannabe gangsters is superlative from beginning to end, and they are, without exception so vividly drawn that the reader can picture each of them in all their sullied glory. Connolly plays close attention to how these men hold themselves, their physicality and manner of dress, and in this world where the appearance of confidence and strength is the key to success, it becomes easy to identify the weak and powerless who will definitely not make it to the end of the book. Despite having the moral code of a band of backstreet alley cats, I love that these men have a taste for the finer things in life be it smart threads, flashy motors and the finest food and drink. Much of their business is conducted in the rarefied air of high end restaurants and exclusive clubs, but equally in dodgy cafes and unsavoury boozers.

Our unnamed narrator, has all the street-smarts and at a relatively tender age is assured in his mission to retire at 30, unscathed and unpunished for his more nefarious drug dealings behind his appearance of respectability. Throughout the book, he not only cleverly negotiates the world of the gangster kingpins, but is more often than not, manipulated at the whim of others and things begin to get very dodgy indeed for him. I like the way that Connolly uses him as a mirror to the unsavoury cohorts encircle him, and through his perception of them, and their outbursts of violence, we get an even more vivid picture of these sometimes desperate and always dangerous men. In this world where money is all and double dealing the way to get on, there is little in the way of honesty, but there are flashes of loyalty and friendship that transcend this tough, dog-eat-dog and immoral world. The sudden and visceral outbursts of violence are as natural to these men as breathing, and as they alternately turn on each other, or band together to defeat outside forces, The psychological aspects of their personalities really fleshes them out for the reader, and poses puzzles all of its own as their behaviours change and by extension our perception of them.

The raw earthiness of Connolly’s prose is relentless, so for those of a sensitive disposition and an aversion to profanity, you would probably best avoid this. Even for a hardened reader the sheer weight of colloquialisms, street slang and swearing, added to the pace and rat-a-tat dialogue and narrative can be a little overwhelming at times, but the breath-taking scope of Connolly’s vocabulary and prose is a marvel. The prose is harshly rhythmical with a beat and musicality all of its own and although I have read the book a few times over the years, and I never tire of the snappy prose and the raw rhythm of the language  that the book marches along to.

Admittedly, some of the book seems a little dated now in terms of how time has moved on and how technology plays a much bigger part in the world of cross border drug dealing, but of its time, Connolly’s Layer Cake remains a classic of London crime and a lucid and compelling tale of the drug underworld. There is a raw sophistication instead of a sleek one, as the book does untangle a little in terms of tight narrative, and goes off in tangents at some points, but it’s all part of its charm. This is probably why I’ve always loved it, and will always return to it when the opportunity arises, Highly recommended.

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Check out the exclusive signed editions available from NO ALIBIS BOOKS

(With thanks to Duckworth for the PDF ARC, although I read my twenty year old beaten up, well loved copy!)

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Alan Parks- Bobby March Will Live Forever

The papers want blood. The force wants results. The law must be served, whatever the cost. July 1973. The Glasgow drugs trade is booming and Bobby March, the city’s own rock-star hero, has just overdosed in a central hotel. Alice Kelly is thirteen years old, lonely. And missing.  Meanwhile the niece of detective Harry McCoy’s boss has fallen in with a bad crowd and when she goes AWOL, McCoy is asked – off the books – to find her. McCoy has a hunch. But does he have enough time?

Well, here is a book to gladden the heart in uncertain times, continuing on from the brilliant Bloody January, and February’s Son, both of which reached my top 10 reads of 2018 and 2019 respectively. Harry McCoy is back and with some style it has to be said. There is always a slight sense of trepidation as one book develops into a series as we start to form a connection with, and an affection for the central character. I also appreciate that this tension must be a hundredfold on the author themselves, but I’ll tell you something for nothing, I think this is possibly the strongest out of the trilogy to date. Yes. I should coco. Obviously, Parks has hit on the winning formula of writing an instantly recognisable police procedural set in 1970’s Glasgow, but it’s what the author layers into his books that make them all the more sharp and compelling…

Harry McCoy embodies all that we love in our detectives being both flawed but also a man who works by his own code that does imbue in him a real integrity and honesty. Yes, he’s a wee bit damaged emotionally, but for the most part overcomes this, and goes about his business both on and off the books with a steely focus and determination. Adhering to his own moral code naturally leads him into conflict with some of his colleagues, but it is gratifying to see that his immediate superior does know what a rough, and useful, diamond he has in Harry. Equally, McCoy’s long term friendship with one of the criminal kingpins of Glasgow Stevie Cooper, allows the stories to take an additional frisson, and it was good to see that due to one strange turn of events, Cooper is suddenly placed in a submissive position for part of the book as he succumbs to a particular weakness of the flesh.

As usual, Parks’ characterisation is a tour de force from those that work alongside McCoy, in particular his on-off partner the delightful Wattie and McCoy’s nemesis, Detective Raeburn, and on the other side of tracks Cooper’s band of merry and not-so-merry associates. I particularly like the world weary and sharp-tongued brothel madam Iris, and the truly annoying and potty-mouthed local reporter Mary. The book is also interspersed with the stream of consciousness of the eponymous Bobby March, a musician of some talent on a downward spiral of drug addiction and self destruction, that is both bleak but also profoundly touching.  Parks’ characters are unerringly vividly drawn with a nervy energy, and no matter how small or large a part they play in the overall plot, each contributes a pertinent and necessary contribution, putting a real flesh on the bones as the story progresses.

Obviously, being set in the 1970’s and in a rough and ready Glasgow, the book rejects all of the politically correct nonsense which we are so hyper aware of now, and that is a real tonic. In a nod to the more sensitive reader, Parks balances his depiction of the more sexist treatment of women, with characters such as the previously mentioned Iris and Mary, who are often far more intimidating than the male protagonists. The police are less hands off and more fists out in some cases, but context is everything, and fits perfectly with the zeitgeist of the era. Glasgow is depicted in all its grim glory, but Parks balances this beautifully with moments of pure affection for this city and its inhabitants, giving small chinks of light in its grey, downtrodden environs. I always notice this more in Scottish crime fiction, and it warms the cockles every time I encounter this acceptance and honesty about their chosen locations.

So, with no element of surprise whatsoever, you’ll probably have guessed that in Bobby March Will Live Forever, Parks has once again produced a total winner. With its grim, unflinching plot, punctuated by moments of humour, and the acceptance of both the good and the bad, both in his characters, the period, the cultural references and the location itself, I would totally and completely recommend this, and the entire series to you all. Gritty, witty and an absolute must read. Highly recommended.

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(With thanks to Canongate for the ARC and apologies to the author and Anne Cater of #RandomThingsBlogTours for the delay in reviewing)

 

Vanda Symon- Containment #BlogTour

Chaos reigns in the sleepy village of Aramoana on the New Zealand coast, when a series of shipping containers wash up on the beach and looting begins. Detective Constable Sam Shephard experiences the desperation of the scavengers first-hand, and ends up in an ambulance, nursing her wounds and puzzling over an assault that left her assailant for dead. What appears to be a clear-cut case of a cargo ship running aground soon takes a more sinister turn when a skull is found in the sand, and the body of a diver is pulled from the sea- a diver who didn’t die of drowning. As first officer at the scene, Sam is handed the case, much to the displeasure of her superiors, and she must put together an increasingly confusing series of clues to get to the bottom of a mystery that may still have more victims…

Right where are we off to now on another global crime adventure- New Zealand that’s where, and into the world of Detective Constable Sam Shephard, where a seemingly simple case of container looting, leads to a whole heap of trouble for this sassier than your average cop…

Containment marks the third outing for DC Sam Shepard (following Overkill and The Ringmaster) and it’s good to see our female cop has lost none of her gumption and slightly gung-ho attitude in the interim. From getting physically assaulted at the opening of the book, Shepard is once again steaming in to perilous situations, getting right up the nose of her superior officer, and having a fairly intense crisis of confidence in both her love life, and with some unwelcome news about one of her nearest and dearest. I think Shephard’s character is what really engages the reader throughout the series, as she is so utterly believable, whether giving as good as she gets with the ribaldry of her mostly male police colleagues, or just going above and beyond in her investigations. What she so evidently displays is that no investigation is black and white, and that a slightly less dogmatic and more considered approach is the most useful way to unlock people and what they may be concealing. She often sees ‘both sides of the coin’ in terms of those she interacts with, be they colleague, friend, victim or perpetrator and a touching affinity with the underdog. There’s a lovely quote in the book, where Sam says, “If I thought about it, I’d spent my entire life trying to save things…Sam Shepard champion to the underdog…Policing was the perfect profession for someone like me. You got paid to save people, fix problems.” I love the close up of her life that Symon seems to blanket us in, be it as a female detective, a friend, a lover, a concerned daughter, and at times just one of the boys, joshing on, and fearlessly (and sometimes thoughtlessly) putting herself into the same level of physical danger as her male colleagues. She is a wonderfully well-rounded character, with an endearing amount of flaws and Symon really connects her to the reader.

Symon’s writing has a real rhythm and fluidity , and carries the reader along on a sea of humour, action and waves of human emotion from the intensely confrontational to the deeply personal, but never at the expense of the natural unfolding of what is essentially a police procedural. The interludes of humour are perfectly placed to connect the reader more with the police protagonists, and to accentuate the fact that these are just ordinary people doing a relatively thankless job, and having their own worries and pressure points. There at petty rivalries but also some deep seated loyalties, and I do like the way that Symon’s plays with the notion of ‘honour amongst thieves’ in terms of the less law abiding characters. Although, I felt some aspects of the plot were a little weaker than the previous books, Symon’s aptitude for colourful, believable characterisation across the board, and sublime dialogue gives the reader a real momentum as the investigation unfolds. If you haven’t had the pleasure of checking this series out yet, I would definitely give it a whirl, as Symon’s writing and in particular her pithy wit is akin to such stalwarts of the genre as Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and Janet Evanovich with a beautiful New Zealand twist. Recommended.

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(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Eamonn Griffin- East of England

Dan Matlock is out of jail. He’s got a choice. Stay or leave. Go back to where it all went wrong, or just get out of the county. Disappear. Start again as someone else. But it’s not as simple as that.  There’s the matter of the man he killed. It wasn’t murder, but even so. You tell that to the family. Especially when that family is the Mintons, who own half of what’s profitable and two-thirds of what’s crooked between the Wolds and the coast. Who could have got to Matlock as easy as you like in prison, but who haven’t touched him. Not yet. Like Matlock found out in prison, there’s no getting away from yourself. So what’s the point in not facing up to other people? It’s time to go home…

Alerted to the presence of this book via social media, the synopsis instantly grabbed me, and with the plus point of being set in a part of the UK that I am not aware of having read about before, this looked to be a sure-fire winner. I was not wrong, and I was completely delighted by this gritty tale of rural noir…

Set in and around the open flatlands of Lincolnshire, East of England, is a sparely written, but no less compelling account of one man’s thirst for revenge and atonement after a lengthy prison spell for manslaughter. I found that the sparsity of the prose mirrored the anodyne nature of the landscape perfectly, and to a certain degree the smallness and petty criminalities of the people’s lives that Griffin so effectively describes here. This is a small, claustrophobic world, that has moved on little since Matlock’s incarceration, and as he revisits traces of his past there is an overwhelming feeling of how slowly time has passed both inside and outside the prison walls, and how easily Matlock can track down those who have wronged him.

Speaking of which,  I loved the way that in describing individual’s physical qualities, Griffin pares them back with a sharp simplicity often highlighting their less attractive features with a rapier wit. Everyone has a certain unattractiveness about them in either appearance or demeanour, but cleverly Griffin manipulates these to keep us fascinated by this collection of nutters, criminals and general oddballs. Matlock himself is a wonderfully mercurial figure, subject to sudden and lethal outbursts of violence and ill-humour, but also demonstrating a more empathetic and charitable side to his character sharply at odds with his bad-boy demeanour. I thought he was an incredibly appealing and unpredictable character, hell-bent on revenge, but quick-thinking and resourceful at every stage, but I was aware of an emotional distance between us and him that I found intriguing. This put me very much in mind of the work of say Ted Lewis (Get Carter) and as Matlock traverses this grim and unrelenting landscape I was sharply reminded of the immortal opening to that seminal film.

I thought this was an accomplished and very enjoyable debut- gritty, tense, violent yet punctuated with moments of pathos and wit at odds with the depressing landscape, and the cast of really quite unlikeable characters. I am keen to see what Griffin produces next, as I would highly recommend this one.

(I received an ARC via Netgalley from Unbound Digital)

Blog Tour- Sara Gran- The Infinite Blacktop

Driven off the desert road and left for dead, Claire DeWitt knows that it is someone from her past trying to kill her, she just doesn’t know who. Making a break for it from the cops who arrive on the scene, she sets off in search of the truth, or whatever version of it she can find. But perhaps the biggest mystery of all lies deeper than that, somewhere out there on the ever rolling highway of life….

And so we reach the third instalment of Sara Gran’s terrific series featuring private detective Claire DeWitt, and what a powerhouse of a thriller it is. Tagged as a feminist take on the hardboiled tradition of Raymond Chandler, and described by me on Twitter as ‘Nancy Drew on meth’, this is a fast paced, nerve shredding roller coaster of a ride, with one of the most damaged, but engaging, protagonists in modern crime fiction…

Smoothly moving through three timeframes and criss crossing between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and other locations, Gran has created a perfectly weighted account of her DeWitt’s journey from fledgling junior detective, with two of her childhood friends (and a myriad of cases with the best Nancy Drew-esque monickers) through her development of skills under the tutelage of the enigmatic and eccentric private detective Constance Darling, to the current gigantic and dangerous sh*tstorm she finds herself in, as her past comes back to wreak revenge in the present. Not one to be deterred, despite the physical danger she often finds herself in, DeWitt continues her reputation as being as lethal as a cornered wild animal, and draws on all her cunning and ingenuity to track down the man who wishes her dead, opening up the dark experiences from her past, and the path to self destruction that she seems set to embark on. DeWitt is quite simply a gloriously kick ass character, driven by dark impulses, but sometimes showing moments of extreme emotional vulnerability, that when they come are as powerful in the narrative as the aura of violence and isolation that DeWitt embodies. Fuelled daily by a cocktail of liquor and drugs, which would lesser mortals into a catatonic state, we bear witness to the sleeplessness and hallucinations this produces, but also the steely edge and grim determination that this invokes in DeWitt. I found myself veering between like and dislike for her throughout the book, which is always a good reading experience, and I think most readers will experience the same. Gran’s characterisation of both DeWitt and her surrounding cast is superb, and skilfully encompass all the vices and virtues that make up the human psyche to one extreme or the other.

Before you are all set to thinking that this may all just be leading to a linear crime caper, there are two more facets of this book that Gran excels at. First is the whip smart dialogue which is tight, precise and, in the true hardboiled tradition of Chandler et al, gives a verve and tautness to the periods of interaction between character. This applies equally to the general writing style of the book, where truly no word is wasted, and the prose is crisp, cutting and perfectly rendered. Secondly, Gran also takes us on a cerebral journey referencing a book on detection, subtly titled ‘Detection’ by Jacques Silette (himself the tutor of DeWitt’s mentor Constance Darling) which Gran uses to illustrate the differing ‘schools’ of private detection, and their contrasting methods and mind-sets. I found these diversions in the multi-layered narrative, extremely effective, and perhaps these, more than other elements of the book, so clearly define why DeWitt is as mercurial as she is, and what drives her to succeed, despite the extremely dark events that have tarnished her emotional core.

I am a real fan of this series, and if you like your crime with a tantalisingly dangerous edge to it, powered by punchy dialogue, a dark wit, an even darker DeWitt herself, and a more psychological, cerebral feel this is one series you cannot ignore.  Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

 

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Tom Callaghan- An Autumn Hunting

No sooner has Akyl Borubaev been reinstated as an Inspector in the Bishkek Murder Squad than he’s suspended for alleged serious crimes against the state.After an attempted assassination of a prominent minister goes spectacularly wrong, Akyl is a fugitive from his former colleagues and involved with one of Kyrgyzstan’s most dangerous criminals.

On the run, caught up in a illegal scheme that can only end badly, it’s time for Akyl to take a stand for everything he believes in…

So in a blink of an eye we have reached the final instalment of Tom Callaghan’s exceptional Kyrgyzstan quartet featuring Inspector Akyl Borubaev, that all began with the brilliant A Killing Winter , and took us through A Spring Betrayal, and A Summer Revenge

I don’t usually pay much attention to the use of epigraphs before the book proper, but in this case the quote from Chingiz Aitmatov, “The hardest thing for anyone is to be a human being every day” is entirely appropriate for the emotional wringer that Borubaev goes through during the course of this one. Obviously, being the last book of the cycle, the story is incredibly influenced by events of previous books, but rest assured you are kept firmly in the loop, as to who, what, where and how Borubaev has reached this precarious state, both professionally and emotionally. You never shake the sense that Borubaev is a pawn in a much larger game, not always voluntarily, and in a similar style to the sub genre of East German crime thrillers, there’s always the sinister shadow of other security services seeking to control and manipulate him. Borubaev is a superbly constructed character being the archetypal lone wolf, but being neither utterly corrupt nor totally moral. This book, perhaps even more so that the others, sees him playing a dangerous game, inveigling himself with a ruthless criminal with an illegal mission in Bangkok, and appearing to burn all his bridges in his homeland too. As usual, he navigates some very choppy waters indeed, with the requisite amount of physical fear and violence that Callaghan so precisely and excitingly punctuates his books with, and as the book spirals to one of the best closing chapters I have read for some time, this is real edge of the seat stuff throughout. The book is also littered with little flashes of dark, mordant humour and precisely placed barbs aimed at the State, complete with a knowing raise of the eyebrow.

As he uses his natural guile to stay one step ahead, Borubaev’s character is such that we are also allowed to witness moments of extreme emotion and natural sympathy, particularly in his intermittent dalliance with the femme fatale figure of tough hitwoman Saltanat, when a new development in their relationship is revealed- a development that brings his previous marriage back into sharp focus and analysis. Throughout the series his affair with the totally self contained, clinical Saltanat has been an interesting diversion in the unrelenting grimness, uncompromising violence and double crossing that gives the real punch to the writing, and I was curious to see what would happen with them, being such unlikely bedfellows. Callaghan does not disappoint, and instead of the usual schmaltz-laden interludes that ‘tough guys’ have, there is a real depth of emotion and extreme pathos to the hurdles in their relationship.

Once again, Callaghan uses the grey, bleak feel of Kyrgyzstan, both in terrain and in the socio-political sense, to full effect, focussing on the poverty, social deprivation and corruption rife in society. When the action shifts to Bangkok, these themes are revisited as Borubaev witnesses the highs and lows of life in this pulsing city, rich on the surface, but with an underbelly of poverty and extreme exploitation. There is a real depth and richness to Callaghan’s depiction of both locations, and how the problems of an individual state, are all too often repeated and visible in others, most notably the twin evils of drugs and sexual exploitation, and those who profit from them.

I thought this book was a sublime addition to the previous three, and a fitting conclusion to the series, leaving a little catch in the throat, but as a reader a genuine feel of having read a truly satisfying sequence of books. The locations, characterisation, social and political detail, and genuine page-turning excitement are a credit to Tom Callaghan’s writing, and I have enjoyed (and recommended widely) every book. An Autumn Haunting is no exception.  Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

 

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Joe Thomas- Gringa

São Paulo, 2013: a city at an extraordinary moment in its history. Mario Leme, a detective in the civil police, has developed a friendship with a young English investigative journalist, Ellie. When she goes to meet a contact in central São Paulo, Mario observes from the street as she walks into a building and doesn’t come out. Inside, he discovers the dead body of a young man he doesn’t recognise, and Ellie s phone lying on the floor.

Set during five days in the redevelopment of the centre of São Paulo in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, Ellie’s disappearance links characters at every level of the social hierarchy, from the drug dealers and civil and military police to the political class she witnesses, and charts the feral brutality of urban breakdown…

This time last year I had the pleasure of reading  Paradise City , Joe Thomas’ gritty debut, introducing us to mercurial Brazilian detective Mario Leme. Being both an intuitive and compelling read, I was more than keen to see what lay in store for Leme, and to become even further immersed in the impoverished locale of downtown Sao Paulo…

One of the stand out features of Thomas’ debut was his ardent attention to the social, financial and political spheres of Brazilian society, and by using the backdrop of the urban regeneration needed to host the World Cup, Gringa puts the corruption and neighbourhood cleansing into sharp focus. As happened in South Africa, the book particularly focuses on the destruction of a shanty area of Sao Paulo, dubbed Cracolandia, where developers, legal personnel, and politicians, run roughshod over the lives of the less fortunate, to achieve their vision. With his innate feel for the hardboiled, pared down style of prose, Thomas consistently unsettles the reader with his depiction of these greedy, and not entirely legal practices, and those who suffer in its aftermath. Fortunately though, this is counterbalanced by a series of murders connected to those involved in the area’s development, and the disappearance of a young female journalist eager for a scoop. I found the level of factual detail intertwined with the main ‘thriller’ plot absolutely fascinating, and felt my hackles rise on more than one occasion at the social injustice that the book centres on. The level of corrupt nefarious practices that Gringa exposes was a real eye opener, and I appreciated the way that Thomas consistently exposes the naked truth behind the power and oppression of the more vulnerable in society. It was both powerful and thought provoking.

The weighty social issues of the book, are more than balanced with the superb characterisation, which I felt was even more assured than in the first book. Detective Mario Leme in particular has achieved a certain level of settled equilibrium in his personal life, after the emotional trauma of losing his wife, but in the style of all good crime thrillers, his new investigation threatens to turn this swiftly on its head. I like the slightly morose air of Leme, who is one hundred percent one of the good guys,  and his jocular partner Lisboa, who are set apart from their less reputable police colleagues. Leme reminds me strongly of a kind of world weary American detective, and his self questioning, but keen sense of morality,  reflects this further. There is a consistent attention to all of Thomas’ characters, from bright eyed but singularly naïve journalist Ellie, to Fernando and Leandro, two eager young chaps embroiled in  illegal practices relating to the slum clearance, and a host of other ne’er-do-wells who reek of violence and corruption.

With reference again to Thomas’s writing style, Leme’s and Lisboa’s interactions, along with all the dialogue in the book is sharp, snappy, and has a rhythmical fluidity consist with the sound and cadence of the Brazilian tongue. The book is punctuated with the Brazilian vernacular, some in the glossary at the back, some not, but with the flow of the prose you begin to take the meanings on by osmosis, and I have learnt some very choice Brazilian expressions of disgust or outrage that I’m sure will be valuable at some point! Joking aside though, I thought the structure and language of the book was perfect, and I loved those small episodic interludes of whipcracker paced streams of consciousness that punctuate the book. A great read for those who like their crime on the darker side of the tracks, and dare I say it, even better than the debut. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Arcadia Books for the ARC)

Blog Tour- M. P. Wright- Restless Coffins

1969, Bristol. Bajan ex- cop and reluctant private detective, Joseph ‘JT’ Tremaine Ellington is still trading in cash and favours, lending a helping hand to those too scared to go to the police or anyone trying to stay one step ahead of them.
Life is tough for JT, who is broke. It is about to get a lot tougher when he receives a telegram informing him of a tragedy that has unfolded thousands of miles away. Ellington’s sister, Bernice has been murdered. Ellington wants to make the long journey back to his home on the island of Barbados to pay his final respects and to settle his late sister’s affairs. To do so, he must accept a ticket from his shady cousin, Vic, on condition he travels to New York first, where Vic is building himself a criminal empire in Harlem.
JT soon discovers that Vic is the American end of an operation that stretches back to Barbados, and that Vic’s business partner is Conrad Monroe, the man responsible for the death of JT’s wife and daughter. As JT finds himself embroiled in the world of drugs, bent law, voodoo and the bitter legacy of slavery, he must return to the island of his birth and face the demons of his past

Having quietly championed the first two books in the J. T. Elington trilogy , Heartman and All Through The Night , as both a blogger and a bookseller, it was with a sense of anticipation that I approached the reading of Restless Coffins.  As life conspires to kick Ellington in the teeth again, you know things are going to get a bit lively, but with the intervention of his wayward cousin Vic, it can only get downright dangerous…

Obviously, having been following the books already, the doom laden back story of JT is firmly established in my mind already, but fear not dear reader, the set up of Restless Coffins is quite accessible to the first time reader, if you randomly begin here. With the first two books being so firmly set in the UK, this book also strikes a broader appeal as the story travels from Bristol, to the gangs of Harlem, to the hoodoo voodoo of New Orleans and then propels us to the bloody denouement in JT’s native Barbados. By broadening the book in this way, it also enabled Wright to consolidate his position as, in my opinion, one of the finest purveyors of descriptive fiction in the thriller genre. His attention to detail, to atmosphere building, to location, to the very make up of whatever environment he places his characters into, is absolutely second to none. Every scene is loaded with precise and vivid detail, more commonly encountered in literary fiction, which enshrouds you completely, and transports you with absolute clarity to the environs of his character’s experiences. Every location, every means of transport, every person, everything JT sees and experiences, puts us there with him, entwining us even more intensely with the book.

Likewise, Wright’s characterisation is pitch perfect as usual, and the intensity he imbues in JT in particular, is absolutely compelling. JT’s emotional, complicated, self questioning inner life must be exhausting to convey to the page, and every scene that puts the spotlight solely on this character, is an emotional rollercoaster for JT as well as the reader. As well as the constant pull on his emotions through the loss of those closest to him, both by birth, by marriage, and by association, he undergoes an extreme amount of physical assault. Indeed, the fight scenes are so precisely written I have an image of the author throwing himself his writing room choreographing them to the nth degree of detail, and by extension in the aftermath of JT’s physical encounters, the reader, through the exact descriptions, can feel every cut, every bruise. As well as being a hugely sympathetic character, there is always a degree of questioning from him, at times struggling to keep his emotions and impulses in check, showing his very real human frailty, but steadfastly demonstrating his loyalty to those closest to him, and to the memory of those he has lost. A troubled and complicated man, but also one of great integrity.

And then there’s cousin Vic.

Glorious, dangerous, slippery, sharp-talking Vic. I adore him. You just know that Vic’s gonna turn up, shake up JT’s world a little more, and tweak the nose of death along the way, and that he does. Brilliant. With the new American cast of characters, and some unwelcome faces from JT’s past, there are a host of good, bad and in some cases, exceptionally ugly people to keep JT and Vic on their toes, and the reader thoroughly entertained, horrified, or enraged. There’s some real bad folks in this one.

With Wright’s finely honed ear for the lilting cadence and rhythm of the Caribbean and American dialects, the use of language and dialogue is never less than perfectly authentic, and you quickly assume the pace and rhythm of each interaction. The heat, the atmosphere, the pulsing of human life, the frailties and strengths of his characters, and the rush of blood in violence, assails your mind and senses throughout Restless Coffins, leading to a completely immersive reading experience. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Black and White Publishing for the ARC)

 

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Blog Tour- Tim Baker- City Without Stars

bakerIn Ciudad Real, Mexico, a deadly war between rival cartels is erupting, and hundreds of female sweat-shop workers are being murdered. As his police superiors start shutting down his investigation, Fuentes suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of narco kingpin, El Santo. Meanwhile, despairing union activist, Pilar, decides to take social justice into her own hands. But if she wants to stop the killings, she’s going to have to ignore all her instincts and accept the help of Fuentes. When the name of Mexico’s saintly orphan rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps resurfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise how deep the cover-up goes.

Tim Baker burst onto the Raven’s radar a couple of years ago with the brilliant  Fever City – a skilful and mesmerising reimagining of the events surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Having waited patiently, okay, somewhat impatiently- for his next book, City Without Stars plunges us into the nightmarish realities of life in Mexico, and presents the reader with a searing indictment of lives lived in the shadow of the cartels, corrupt law enforcement, unrelenting poverty, and female exploitation…

Harbouring a deep fascination with Mexico for many years, and citing The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow as quite possibly my favourite crime thriller ever, there was a palpable sense of excitement on embarking on this book. I will say quickly that I could not have been more satisfied with Baker’s exploration into, and intuitive depiction of life in the violent and corrupt surrounds of Ciudad Real. Punctuated by references to the well documented cases of scores of women disappearing, and being found brutally murdered, which by their inclusion crash into the reader’s consciousness throughout, City Without Stars is a claustrophobic and intensely compelling thriller.

The whole book is alive with the feel and atmosphere of the city itself, the heat, the noise, the grime and the sense of hopeless lives lived in the shadow of corrupt wealth and criminal activity. I really felt the harshness of the bleak desert terrain, the final resting place of the many female victims, and each time we encounter it there is an air of menace and threat that envelops you completely. Equally, the grinding poverty of the city, is prevalent throughout, particularly when Baker takes us in to the world of the maquiladoras – Mexican factories run by foreign companies, that export goods back to that company’s country of origin- and trains our attention completely on the exploitation of the women that they employ, with gruelling shift work, a pittance of pay and the malevolent shadow of violence and sexual abuse. Pilar is a mesmerising character, working as a union agitator, and seeking to spur these women on to challenge their feudal bosses, and to improve their working conditions. Baker not only captures her unrelenting crusade and her strength of character, but also hammers home to the reader the doubt and fear of those she tries to encourage to rise up and rebel. She is a real force of nature, and when she crosses paths with Fuentes, an isolated incorruptible cop, there is a wonderful frisson of suspicion and distrust between them that drives the book on. I think Baker captures the female voices of this book perfectly in this macho, patriarchal society, sensitively portraying the level of threat and violence they encounter, but also showing the strength of spirit they have to draw on to simply survive day to day. It’s beautifully handled, and gives rise to some of the most raw, emotional, and moving passages of the book- the writing is superb.

The whole book is underpinned with the stink of corruption, as Baker expands the plot throughout to encompass the deadly influence of the cartels, the rife corruption in the police force, and in this staunchly Catholic country, the seedy and immoral actions of the priesthood. These purveyors of misery, violence and greed, coil together like a roiling nest of snakes, impervious to punishment, and where life and death are treated with a dispassionate and cool contempt. The characters who inhabit these treacherous worlds are, to a man, brilliantly wrought, and you increasingly feel sickened, yet oddly intrigued, by the way they operate and prosper, feeding off the vulnerable and the addicted. The cartel boss, the priests, the police chief, and the factory owners all come under intense scrutiny, and you find yourself unable to look away from the depths of their depravity.

City Without Stars is an intense, emotive and completely absorbing read, suffused with a violent energy, and with an unrelenting pace to its narrative. It heightens the reader’s senses and imagination throughout, completely enveloping the reader in this corrupt and violent society, with instances of intense human frailty and moments of strength, underpinned by precise description, and flurries of dark humour.

I thought it was absolutely marvellous. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

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Amer Anwar- Western Fringes

Southall, West London.
Recently released from prison, Zaq Khan is lucky to land a dead-end job at a builders’ yard. All he wants to do is keep his head down and put his past behind him.
But when he has to search for his boss’s runaway daughter it quickly becomes apparent he’s not simply dealing with family arguments and arranged marriages as he finds himself caught up in a deadly web of deception, murder and revenge…

Winner of the CWA Debut Dagger Award, Western Fringes marks the start of an incredibly promising crime thriller writing career for Amer Anwar. This one of the most vibrant and edgy crime thrillers I have encountered for some time. From the very start of the book, I was completely immersed in the trials and tribulations of central protagonist Zaq Khan, who through the fickle finger of fate finds himself entangled in a very dangerous situation indeed. Subject to blackmail and intimidation, he is tasked with uncovering the whereabouts of his boss’s errant daughter, Rita, who has ostensibly run away from an impending forced marriage. Finding himself at odds with his boss, Rita’s two meat-headed brothers, and ghosts from the past seeking to inflict some serious physical damage upon him, Zaq needs to be resourceful, cunning and more than a little devious to survive this trial by fire…

Zaq is a truly likeable and engaging character, who immediately gets the reader on side with his mix of easy humour, craftiness, and genuine good guy demeanour. Anwar instils him with a honesty and charm that has you rooting for him from the outset, as pressure is brought to bear on him from all angles. He’s fast-talking and quick thinking, and despite the hole he finds himself in does not lose his keen sense of morality to extricate Rita, and by extension, himself, from a nasty situation.  I loved his interactions with his best mate Jags, and the solid camaraderie that exists between them, despite the twist in fate that sees their lives having progressed on two very different courses. I also admire Jags’ natural ability to act as a second mother to Zaq in terms of tea-making and painkiller providing as his mate gets into a succession of scrapes, and is always happy to play second fiddle to Zaq’s suicidal plans. This has to be one of the greatest friendships forged in crime fiction, and is a constant source of delight throughout. Anwar’s band of bad boys, out for Zaq’s blood are equally well depicted, slow, dull-witted, and handy with their fists, and allowing for some exciting and very well written fight scenes, where there is a realistic and palpable pain. There’s nothing worse than a fight scene where everyone is seemingly unmarked by the experience, and boy, does Zaq take some punishment.

Set around the environs of Southall and its Asian community, the life, colour, languages and atmosphere of this area shines through Anwar’s depiction of its inhabitants. The sights, sounds and delicious aromas of the area bring a vibrancy and liveliness to his descriptions, and gives the reader a real sense of the connections between our main protagonists and their community. The plotting is assured, and I liked the way that Anwar leads us in a seemingly linear direction, which is entertaining enough, but then pulls a couple of startling revelations that take the story in a different direction indeed. The pace is perfectly controlled, and I genuinely found this incredibly hard to put down, as it is punctuated by a glorious mix of fast visceral action, a dash of heart-warming interactions, a further sprinkling of violence and chicanery, and then a steady build up of misdirection to an exciting, and not altogether predictable ending.

I absolutely loved Western Fringes, and having become a little jaded with the British-set crime thriller scene of late, this gave me a right old flying by the seat of my pants reading experience, which seemed fresh and exciting. A cracking new voice on the thriller scene, and yes, I can’t wait to see what Amer Anwar produces next. Pure brilliant and highly recommended.

(With many thanks to the author for the ARC)