Doug Johnstone- Breakers

Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum. On a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead, but that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt. With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in devastating danger, Tyler meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house, and he thinks she may just be his salvation, unless he drags her down too…

About three years ago I reviewed a book by Doug Johnstone called The Jump , a book that remains as one of the best books I have ever read. In my original review I said that, “When people decry genre fiction as somehow not being as worthy or the compare of ‘literary fiction’,  I have no hesitation in drawing their attention to books such as this, which possesses an emotional intensity and sensitivity that is rarely encountered in any genre, harnessing emotional, and by their very nature, contentious issues that many writers in the ‘literary’ field would struggle to address in such an affecting way as Johnstone achieves.” So it will come as no real surprise to hear that in this intensely compelling read, and in my ever so humble opinion, Doug Johnstone has more than achieved this again…

Let’s start with Tyler, the central protagonist, balancing his role as protector, provider, and accomplice, at a relatively tender age, and with an over enhanced sense of responsibility and some times misplaced loyalty in his familial role. Juggling the role of caregiver and protector of his younger sister ‘Bean’, but finding himself at the behest and control of his aggressive and borderline psychopathic step brother, Tyler navigates a tense and ominously threatening path through life. Desperate to keep the equilibrium of his home life, but with his mum’s instability and dependence on drink and drugs, casting a shadow over the stability of this, one impulsive criminal act places Tyler and Bean in extreme danger. What Johnstone captures so perfectly in the character of Tyler, is that of a young man propelled into adulthood and maturity due to the extreme behaviour of others. He’s bright, resourceful, and emotionally intuitive, and a wonderful caregiver for Bean, but there’s also there’s always this sense of the child about him, dominated by his stepbrother, his tentative handling of his relationship with spiky posh girl Flick, and his unflinching acceptance of his mum’s emotional and physical weakness. He is the epitome of a young man who’s had to grow up a startling fast rate, but not to the detriment of his own strong moral code, his integrity and compulsion to protect others.

As we have come to expect of this author, Johnstone himself is also unflinching in this portrayal of a family in meltdown. The particular angst, borderline poverty and issues of abuse and anger, that all too many families encounter lay at the very heart of this book, but tangentially Johnstone also shows through the home life of Flick that this emotional paucity is equally relevant to her life, with the emotional neglect of her parents, her mother’s alcohol abuse, and the coldness of her father. She seeks attention in destructive ways and she’s financially rich, but only attains an emotional richness through her growing attachment to Tyler, and by extension, Bean too. Through this relationship we also see her bravery and resourcefulness, and the sense of her yin to Tyler’s yang that begins to become apparent as her involvement in these dark events escalates.

The authenticity of Johnstone’s characters is due in no small part to his intensely realistic portrayal of the world that Tyler and his family exist in. The book is peppered with sudden outbreaks of violence and abuse, with the overriding control of his sadistic stepbrother Barry, and the ramifications of entering the dangerous world of a hardened criminal that Barry’s foolish and impulsive actions, catapult them into. At one point Tyler berates Flick for embarking on her own ‘poverty safari’ as their life experience appear to be so markedly different, and Tyler’s world is a stark contrast socio-economically- harsh and poor, with the threat of violence a norm. As much as the book is brutally realistic, it is also tinged with sensitivity and compassion, with a strong message that a less than promising start in life is not necessarily proof of a moral deficiency, and that a good nature can overrule bad nurture. Despite the anger and tension so in evidence in these characters’ lives, I found this book tremendously life affirming, and as Tyler grows in stature and strength, he very much takes the reader with him. You’re rooting for him, and it doesn’t feel that your belief in him is misplaced. Breakers is a superb read (with an equally excellent soundtrack woven into the narrative) and once more I would heartily encourage you that, if you haven’t read this author before, you really should do so.

It would be rude not too…

Highly recommended.

 

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

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Oscar de Muriel- A Fever of the Blood

Fever_of_the_BloodNew Year’s Day, 1889. In Edinburgh’s lunatic asylum, a patient escapes as a nurse lays dying. Leading the manhunt are legendary local Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray and Londoner-in-exile Inspector Ian Frey. Before the murder, the suspect was heard in whispered conversation with a fellow patient – a girl who had been mute for years. What made her suddenly break her silence? And why won’t she talk again? Could the rumours about black magic be more than superstition? McGray and Frey track a devious psychopath far beyond their jurisdiction, through the worst blizzard in living memory, into the shadow of Pendle Hill – home of the Lancashire witches – where unimaginable danger awaits…

Having been singularly impressed by de Muriel’s debut, The Strings of Murder, introducing uncouth Scottish detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray, and softy Southern detective Ian Frey, there was more than a hint of excitement when A Fever Of The Blood arrived, replete with a raven’s feather- perfect marketing for this blogger. So how did our tenacious, and wonderfully ill-matched detective duo fare in this new instalment of de Muriel’s Victorian inspired series? There is dark witchcraft afoot, and Frey and McGray find themselves in more than a spot of peril…

One of the joys of a second book in a series is to see how the author further develops their characters, and the shades of dark and light they apply to their central protagonists. This is certainly true of this book, as the asperity and bravery of Frey increases in his tussles with his obnoxiousness and fearless counterpart McGray. However, by the same token there is a slight softening of the edges of McGray himself, as details of his family background come into focus, and a new, dare I say it, more touchy feely side is exposed. Yes. What are the odds of that? Admittedly, some switches in their characters can be explained by the dark forces of witchcraft that are at work upon them throughout this murderous adventure, but I liked this little teasing of our perceptions about the pair, that de Muriel has woven into the book. The book is again infused with the crude wit and ripostes of McGray, when frustrated by the buttoned-up protestations of Frey, and these moments of humour are perfectly placed throughout. Equally, in true pantomime style there is a boo-worthy crew of baddies to thwart and torment our heroes, and the grotesque Lady Ardglass makes a reappearance but with little change in her own character- once an old crone, always an old crone- and whose blighted family history lays at the centre of this latest devilish tale. There are evil witches, good witches, lunatic asylum patients and ineffectual policemen, and a wonderful manipulation of our senses as to who is good, who is bad, and who is actually more than a little bit of both. The characterisation is lively, playful, and at times incredibly dark and chilling, and de Muriel balances all these contrasting aspects of his protagonists and antagonists with an assured air.

There is an unrelenting pace to the book as Frey and McGray embark on a game of cat and mouse as they seek to track down asylum escapee Joel Ardglass, offspring of the hideous Lady Ardglass, but find themselves in the sight of some unholy creatures, and a final denouement in the shadows of Pendle, Lancashire, with all its allusions to the famous witchcraft case. Indeed, the majority of the book sees Frey and McGray in a state of frenetic perambulation, led onward by the mysterious green glow of witches’ beacons, and the will o’ the wisp tendencies of their fugitive from justice. It’s fair to say that more than one mishap befalls them along the way, and there are some real nerve-shredding moments as the plot progresses. So in addition to being a real tale of ominous derring-do, there is, as explained by the author’s notes, the careful inclusion of factual reference to witchcraft and its practices in days of yore. Also, de Muriel has taken a little bit of artistic licence drawing on his Mexican heritage, and integrating some little details of the dark arts that herald from his own homeland, which adds to the overall colour and interest of the witchcraft narrative.

So, it’s all deliciously dark, violent and compelling, with new nuances to the characters of, and the relationship between our earthy Scotsman McGray, and his rather reluctant counterpart Frey. There are dark arts, light humour, and a sense of unrelenting excitement and danger. It’s a romp, and a very enjoyable one at that.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)

Oscar de Muriel- The Strings of Murder

 

23257047Edinburgh, 1888. A virtuoso violinist is brutally killed in his home. Black magic symbols cover the walls. The dead man’s maid swears she heard three musicians playing before the murder.But with no way in or out of the locked practice room, the puzzle makes no sense…
Fearing a national panic over a copycat Ripper, Scotland Yard sends Inspector Ian Frey to investigate under the cover of a fake department specializing in the occult. However, Frey’s new boss – Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray – actually believes in such nonsense.
McGray’s tragic past has driven him to superstition, but even Frey must admit that this case seems beyond reason. And once someone loses all reason, who knows what they will lose next…

Regular readers of my reviews should be strongly aware that I very rarely read historical crime fiction despite my love of Poe and Conan Doyle. I rarely stray further back than the 1940’s, so sirens should be sounding that this was something special to tempt me out of my historical boundaries. In the first instance, this was recommended to me by a crime author, and then I had the delight of seeing Oscar de Muriel at the CrimeFest crime writing convention in Bristol recently. Feeding off his enthusiasm and passion for the crime fiction genre, and intrigued by how a young author of Mexican heritage would go about writing a Victorian supernatural thriller set in London and Edinburgh, I couldn’t refuse a read of this one…

The author’s love of, and passion for, Victorian crime fiction comes shining through the book, garnered by his childhood reading, growing up in Mexico, of Sherlock Holmes. He recreates with ease all the sights, smells and atmosphere of London and Edinburgh, as the story pivots between the slums and gentrified locales of both cities during this period. Indeed, sometimes the writing is realistic enough of the lowdown dirty streets, to make your nose wrinkle, as our indomitable detectives, Frey and McGray, navigate their way through the filthy highways and byways, and the equally malodorous residents. Equally, de Muriel perfectly captures the snobbery and superiority of the upper classes, as they become inveigled in this testing investigation, which revolves around ghastly murder, and haunted violins…

The plotting is superb throughout, suffused with all the familiar tropes of a traditional locked room mystery, with a good smattering of red herrings and false alleys along the way. I remained in blissful ignorance of how the crimes were committed until close before the end of the book, and enjoyed the air of ghostly goings-on, and twisting plot reveals that drove the action on throughout. My enjoyment of the book was further compounded by the brilliant characterisation of de Muriel’s ill-matched detective duo. He played them off against each other beautifully, pitting the uptight namby-pamby London detective, Frey against the rough, plain-speaking Scottish detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray. The ill tempered banter, and rivalry between the two was beautifully played throughout, even extending the north-south divide to their quibbling servants, and the way that they were perceived by the more well-to-do members of the cast in the course of their investigation. With de Muriel’s liberal use of the Scottish vernacular in the case of McGray, compared with the southern nicety of Frey, their voices rang loud in my head as I was reading, and I learnt some wonderfully earthy Scottish insults along the way! By depicting these two so colourfully throughout the book, there can be little doubt that this partnership will run and run, underscored by the resentment but grudging respect that defines their personal and professional relationship.

Being a musician himself, has also added a terrific sense of realism to the plot in the way that the world of music, and more specifically violins, feature in the story. Drawing on real life virtuosos, esteemed makers of musical instruments, and the fantastical stories that have accompanied some of these instruments along the way, there is an added depth and interest to the central plot, at their role within it. Indeed, a friend of mine, an adept violinist himself, was thoroughly intrigued when I mentioned this book, and was quick to verify the veracity of the facts that de Muriel interweaves into the story. So more brownie points for de Muriel…

So all in all a bit of a find this one, threaded with humour, intrigue, colourful characters, and a real sense of time and place. A very impressive debut, and I cannot await the further adventures of Frey and McGray. A cracking good read, and a case that Holmes himself would love to have flexed his detective skills with.

(I bought this copy of The Strings of Murder and it is published in the UK by PenguinRandomHouse)

 

Just for fun I thought I’d post de Muriel’s biography from his website Oscar de Muriel.com here too. One of the most amusing I have read…

“I was born in Mexico City in 1983, in the building that now houses Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum (some people claim to see a connection there…). I had a very happy childhood even though I did not try refried beans until I was six (I refused to eat anything brown and gooey).

My first attempt at writing stories, aged seven, was a tale about a triceratops and a stegosaurus battling a very hungry T-Rex. Their three-page, ten-line long adventure was profusely illustrated by the author. Stegosaurus was extinct millions of years before the first T-Rex hatched, but I still consider it a milestone.

When I was ten, Jurassic Park (the novel) scared the Jesus out of me – reminiscent of that Friends’ episode where Joey Tribiani hides his books in the fridge (I blogged about that here). I’d never thought that written stories could have such a thrilling effect, and as soon as I got JP out of the freezer I decided I wanted to become a writer.

After a few fiascos and blatant steals, I managed to produce a few decent novels in various genres. However, I found myself particularly comfortable writing historical fiction.

I came to the United Kingdom to complete a PhD in Chemistry, working as a free-lance translator to complement my earnings (I was responsible for some cool Johnnie Walker’s ads for Colombia). During this time I produced a handful of academic papers, and the idea of a spooky whodunit started to take roots in my head.

After several visits to Edinburgh, the city struck me as the perfect setting for a crime mystery. The entire concept of Nine-Nails McGray came to my head while eating pizza with a couple of friends [guys, do you remember Cantina Los Perros and the sea monster?]. For years I’d been meaning to write a story about the Devil’s sonata (I am a violin player myself, which I should have probably mentioned earlier…) and it fit perfectly as McGray’s first case – hopefully the first of many.

I went through the literary agent hunt (I will definitely blog about that some day!) until Maggie Hanbury rescued me from the slush pile and lent me her very professional hand. I currently live in Lancashire in a lovely house that overlooks Pendle Hill, a field of limping sheep, and a very creepy-looking manor I aspire to own one day.”

 

 

Doug Johnstone- The Dead Beat

Meet Martha. It’s the first day of her new job as intern at Edinburgh’s The Standard. But all’s not well at the ailing newspaper, and Martha is carrying some serious baggage of her own. Put straight onto the obituary page, she takes a call from a former employee who seems to commit suicide while on the phone, something which echoes with her own troubled past.Setting in motion a frantic race around modern-day Edinburgh, The Dead Beat traces Martha’s desperate search for answers to the dark mystery of her parents’ past…

I must confess that after the slight disappointment of Gone Again, Johnstone’s previous book, he is completely back on song again with The Dead Beat, a thought provoking and emotive thriller set in Edinburgh. With the backdrop of a failing local newspaper, Johnstone not only reprises the character of reporter, Billy Blackmore (Hit and Run) but brings to our attention, Martha, whose first day on the paper as the obituary writer, proves eventful to say the least, setting in motion a whole series of events that resonate strongly with both the here and now, and echoing back to the early 1990‘s…

Following the recent suicide of her father, himself the former news editor at The Standard, Martha is embarking on a work experience placement at the paper. She takes a call from the former obituary writer, and during the course of it, he appears to commit suicide. Naturally, she and her colleague Billy become intimately involved with these events, and soon the investigation begins to encroach heavily on the dark secrets of Martha’s family background. Not only does Johnstone weave a compelling thriller from those initial events, which I will not reveal more details of, but with the theme of mysterious suicides looming large throughout, takes the opportunity to present the reader with an entirely more meditative study of death, the breakdown of families and how the events of the past can so insidiously impact on the present. The real strength of the book, for me, lies in the slow unveiling of the dark and twisted past of Martha’s family through the flashbacks to the early days of her parent’s relationship. Johnstone focuses on how this relationship fostered such an atmosphere of resentment and hatred, resulting in her mother’s current emotional instability, her father’s suicide and the murderous role of another in the fragmentation of Martha’s life, which impacts so heavily on her life now. The writing is emotive and tinged with poignancy, as past events are gradually revealed, with Martha becoming one of the most empathetic characters I have encountered in crime fiction, in her role as a young woman progressively trying to improve herself from troubled beginnings, and seeking to find her place in a world so polluted by the actions of those closest to her. Along with Martha, there are other stand-out characters, not only the reappearance of fellow reporter Billy, with his own interesting past, whose relationship with Martha is both endearing and protective, but also their spiky and ballsy colleague at the newspaper, V, and Martha’s colourful brother Cal.

The other enjoyable aspect of this book, which it has to be said is quite sombre in tone, is Johnstone’s interspersing of references to particular music and bands, so influential in Martha’s parents’ fledgling relationship, and which keep Martha connected with the spirit of her father following his suicide. Indeed, during the period of reading this book, I felt compelled to revisit my old vinyl collection, for some of the bands mentioned and have even discovered a couple of new ones, which added further to my enjoyment of The Dead Beat. So, overall a bit of a hit with me all round, providing a reading experience that went far beyond the average thriller, and that did give me pause for thought with the larger issues and emotions that the book contained. Excellent.

(With thanks to Faber & Faber for the ARC)