Lou Berney- November Road

Frank Guidry’s luck has finally run out. A loyal street lieutenant to New Orleans’ mob boss Carlos Marcello, Guidry has learned that everybody is expendable. But now it’s his turn–he knows too much about the crime of the century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Within hours of JFK’s murder, everyone with ties to Marcello is turning up dead, and Guidry suspecting he’s next, hits the road to Las Vegas. When he spots a beautiful housewife, Charlotte, and her two young daughters stranded on the side of the road, he sees the perfect disguise to cover his tracks from the hit man on his trail. The two strangers share the open road west- and find each other on the way. But Guidry’s relentless hunters are closing in on him, and now he doesn’t just want to survive, he wants to really live, maybe for the first time. 

Everyone’s expendable, or they should be, but now Guidry just can’t throw away the woman he’s come to love. And it might get them both killed…

Parachuting straight into my top three reads of the year is this little beauty from Lou Berney, one of the most engaging and sensitively written books it’s been my pleasure to read of late. Championed by the mighty Don Winslow among others, and with an irresistible premise, this was more than reason enough for me to seek out November Road

As the book is so bound up with the Kennedy assassination, and the violent ramifications for the small group of individuals who enabled it to happen, Berney’s evocation of the period is absolutely perfect. Paying close attention to the social and political fallout of this event, and firmly placing the reader in the heart of 60s America, Berney also traverses the country from New Orleans, to Dallas to the west coast with vivid detail, as Frank Guidry attempts to escape the retribution of his gangster associates seeking to tie up the ‘loose ends’ of those involved in the assassination plot. The sense of the period is always front and centre, from the smallest detail to passing references to civil rights, the filling of the political vacuum, and Berney’s interesting new reworking of the assassination itself, although this is ground that has been trod by many writers and social commentators before. In tackling the Kennedy assassination myth, Berney not only shows belief in himself as a writer, but also succeeds in constructing an incredibly plausible narrative of this most examined and documented event in American political history.

Although the sense of peril looms large with Guidry, and by extension Charlotte and her daughters, being pursued by a particularly pernicious and ice-cold hitman, Berney balances this beautifully with the development of Guidry and Charlotte’s characters, with Guidry in the guise of a travelling salesman, and Charlotte rapidly trying to come to terms with the impulsive decision to leave her alcoholic husband with no plausible plan of what would follow her instantaneous decision. The growing tension in the book, as the sinister hitman Barone unmercifully (for those in his way) pursues them across states, ratchets up the pace of the narrative, and as we focus on the growing relationship between Guidry and Charlotte, the reader has this nagging feeling that danger is just around the corner, as does Guidry himself, and that the clock is ticking down to some kind of showdown. It’s beautifully done, keeping our attention pinned in two strands of the book, inwardly dreading the consequences of these two strands meeting.

Although, theirs is a relationship built on smoke and mirrors, certainly in the case of Guidry, Berney weaves a heartfelt and, at times, incredibly sensitive portrayal of two strangers in flight, drawing closer together, despite the hug chasm between them of their lives up until this point. Suffice to say, we see a gradual change in both of them, and a growing appreciation of how life can sometimes so surprisingly chart a different course, and that these opportunities should be grasped and learnt from. As Guidry becomes more involved with Charlotte and her daughters, I loved the way that Berney handles the initially tentative nature of this, but how he develops and explores both their characters, and the shift in strength and self-determination, particularly in the case of Charlotte. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I can only say that Guidry’s actions both pre and post Charlotte reveal a very different man from the perception we have of him at the outset, and prepare yourself for an incredibly moving denouement…

Regular readers of my blog will know that I appreciate my crime reading is always influenced more by those books that span the genres of crime and contemporary fiction, as I find the more linear, and therefore utterly predictable crime books, less enriching as a reader. Along with two of my reads earlier in the year, Tim Baker’s City Without Stars, and Derek B. Miller’s American By Day, this book held me in it’s thrall from the outset, with its clarity of prose, and perfect characterisation, digging down deep into the nature of human relationships forged in troubled circumstances.

November Road is one of those books that will haunt me for some time. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of November Road published by Harper Collins USA)

 

 

#BlogTour- J. G. Sinclair- Walk In Silence

Keira Lynch may be a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean she plays by the rules. She has been summoned to give evidence against an Albanian hit man. She was there the night he murdered the mother of a five-year-old boy. She remembers it well – it was the same night he put three bullets in her chest and left her for dead.
But there are powerful people who want the hit man back on the streets. When they kidnap the boy, she is given a choice: commit perjury, blow the trial and allow the killer to walk or give evidence, convict him and watch the child die. Keira must make a decision. This time, does she have to cross a line to win?

Following Seventy Times Seven and Blood Whispers, this is the third of J. G. Sinclair’s crime thrillers featuring the character of forthright and feisty Irish lawyer Keira Lynch. Lynch is juggling the dual concerns of an explosive court case back in her adopted city of Glasgow, but also tracking down the whereabouts of an orphaned boy in Albania to provide a better future for him after the violent death of his mother. Still recovering from the violent events recounted in the previous book, once again Lynch is in a killer’s sights, and must call on all her mental and physical strength to outwit the bad guys…

Quite honestly I could just say that I absolutely blooming loved this, and leave it at that, but as this is not an Amazon review, although I did receive the book well-packaged, I will share a little more with you. J. G. Sinclair was speaking at a recent crime festival, and said that his writing was incredibly influenced by the visual nature of the scenes and how this committed itself to the page, and I was incredibly struck throughout by the very strong sense of scene setting that Sinclair ingrains in his book. Be it the austere surrounds of a Glasgow courtroom, the terrace of a hotel in Albania, or a small village in which one particularly beautifully described building houses a horrific discovery. A sense of location and atmosphere suffuses the book consistently throughout, giving added depth and colour behind the central action as a backdrop to the increasingly precarious and dangerous situation that Lynch finds herself involved in.

The plot is utterly compelling, bolstered to some degree by the strength of Lynch’s character, but more simply that Sinclair has a knack for pure thrilling storytelling. There are bad guys, good guys, good guys that could be bad and vice versa, and the relentless pressure of Lynch’s mission to rescue this small child, and seek justice for his murdered mother driving the plot on at a furious pace. The violence is swift and uncompromising, but unlike many thrillers I have read where the degree of violence visited on one woman seems somewhat incredulous, Lynch is very much physically capable to meet violence with violence. Aside from her physical prowess, and her amazing knife skills, she is strong, mentally resilient and quick witted, continually assessing, planning, premeditating  and changing tactics to overcome the peril she finds herself in. She’s also a pretty good lawyer. And justifiably killed a man when she was a small girl. She’s great.

I read Walk In Silence at a frenetic pace, as the speed and energy of Sinclair’s writing, just pushes you on mercilessly, and avoiding spoilers I think the ending could be an interesting set-up for a new fork in Lynch’s life. Action, spills, thrills and some emotional depth it has to be said, amongst the maelstrom of violence and duplicity. Great thriller. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Malcolm Mackay- The Night The Rich Men Burned

mmTwo friends, Alex Glass and Oliver Peterkinney, look for work and for escape from their lives spent growing up on Glasgow’s most desperate fringes. Soon they will become involved in one of the city’s darkest and most dangerous trades. But while one rises quickly up the ranks, the other will fall prey to the industry’s addictive lifestyle and ever-spiralling debts. Meanwhile, the three most powerful rivals in the business – Marty Jones, ruthless pimp; Potty Cruickshank, member of the old guard; and Billy Patterson, brutal newcomer – vie for prominence. And now Peterkinney, young and darkly ambitious, is beginning to make himself known. Before long, violence will spill out onto the streets, as those at the top make deadly attempts to out-manoeuvre one another for a bigger share of the spoils. Peterkinney and Glass will find themselves at the very centre of this war; and as the pressure builds, each will find their actions – and inactions – coming back to haunt them. But it is those they love who will suffer most . . .

Regular readers of my blog cannot have failed to notice my huge admiration of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy, comprising of  The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter How A Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence . All three books centred on the travails of a young hit-man in the employ of the most powerful figures in gangland Glasgow, but experiencing a modicum of moral uncertainty at his chosen career path, and his plans to turn his back on this life. Defined by their spare, gritty and uncompromising style, all three books garnered critical acclaim or awards, and brought us a truly fresh, new voice in Scottish crime fiction. The Night The Rich Men Burned is Mackay’s first standalone project, although marked by the familiar character list, there are sporadic mentions/re-introductions of familiar figures the former trilogy. This novel put me in mind of a kind of twisted Bildungsroman, as it is heavily centred on the adverse fortunes of two young men, Oliver Peterkinney and Alex Glass. Both are paving their way in the seedy and violent world of Glasgow’s criminal fraternity- a hotbed of violence, criminal rivalries, and a bunch of inherently dislikeable men jostling for dominance in the lucrative world of debt-collection, drugs and strip clubs. Written in Mackay’s now trademark style, in clipped, pared down prose, all underscored with a compelling emotional distance to the characters and events he presents, The Night The Rich Men Burned will astound and delight you in equal measure…

In common with his previous books this is an incredibly character driven book, as all the inhabitants , and participants in the warring criminal factions, are separated by codes of allegiance to the nefarious crime lords within each faction. As they plot and scheme to assert their power in the lucrative world of criminal activities, there is a sense of a constantly changing power game. The main players in this, Marty Jones, an exceptionally nasty piece of work; established loan shark, Potty Cruikshank and scheming newcomer Billy Patterson, are all men with a casual attitude to violence and keen to exploit those they consider weak and needy. It is into this world, that Glass and Peterkinney take their first tentative steps, and which provides the thrust of the plot overall.What I find particularly interesting about the novel is how both Peterkinney and Glass, starting from the same point, find their lives take such different directions, from ostensibly having little, or no, difference between them in terms of their socio-economic beginnings. Glass senses an opportunity for them to gain financially in the employ of a local debt-collector, bedazzled by the prospect of a life of glamour, girls, drugs and violence, and drags Peterkinney into his seemingly foolproof plan. Initially Peterkinney seems less sure of the long term benefits of this course of action, but as the book progresses there is a marked change of fortune for them both. Despite his initial reluctance to Glass’ pipe-dreams, Peterkinney uses his smarts and grows in stature, moving further away from the narrow existence he formerly inhabits, (unemployed and sharing a small flat with his Grandad), whilst Glass spirals downwards into an abyss of debt and despair. With the subtle shifts in the timeline that Mackay employs, we as readers see this deviation of their respective fortunes and, subsequently, as the inherent weaknesses or underlying coldness of their individual characters are brought to bear on the ways their lives evolve, our sympathies are roundly manipulated with each new episode.

This is the real strength of Mackay’s writing, that he presents all his protagonists with such a studied and dispassionate air, that he requires of us to form our own allegiances to, and sympathies with the characters he presents. No one is particularly likeable, indeed with most of the characters exhibiting a strong prevalence to violence and financial gain at the expense of others, you would little expect to experience any real empathy with any of them. Cleverly, however, you do find your perception of certain characters shifting and changing, and that is a real and unexpected pleasure of this book, over and above the fairly linear style of plotting that the story reveals. With little or no focus on location per se, aside from the general feeling of a gritty inner city setting, with the inherent dangers and social decay that lies beneath, it is all the more admirable that such extreme focus on characterisation carries the weight of the book throughout with little distraction.

Completely unflinching in its depiction of violence and the immoral exploitation of the lower classes by these grasping loan sharks, The Night The Rich Men Burned, never shies away from the stark realities of life within the criminal fraternity. Oddly dispassionate, with a spare and staccato prose style, Mackay once again illustrates his original and refreshingly different take on the crime genre. Not a comfortable read, and one that will cleverly play with your perceptions of, and attitudes to, the characters within its pages which, I for one, find a much more rewarding reading experience. An excellent read.

Read more reviews of The Night The Rich Men Burned here:

Crime Fiction Lover

Shotsmag

 

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)