Margaret Millar- Vanish In An Instant

On a snowbound night near a small Michigan town, Virginia Barkeley is discovered staggering around, covered in blood and blind drunk. Nearby, wealthy lothario Claude Margolis is found dead, stabbed several times in the neck. The case seems open and shut. Even Virginia thinks she probably committed the crime, although she cannot for the life of her think why. In this classic noir tale of blurred guilt and flawed innocence, a cynical lawyer, Meecham, uncovers the desperate lives of a group connected only by a gruesome murder…

Despite being a huge fan of classic American crime, it is with some shame that I admit to never having read Margaret Millar before. Perhaps slightly overshadowed by her husband, fellow author, Ken Millar aka Ross MacDonald (of whom I’ve read many), on the strength of this one, I think I have a whole new cache of her work to discover…

This is classic American hardboiled crime fiction with a steely feminine edge, that absorbs the reader instantly, and sucks you in to a superbly plotted tale of murder and deception. Millar captures the claustrophobic and suspicious atmosphere of this small town with finesse, where rumour and petty jealousies fuel every interaction. Everyone seems to have an ulterior motive for their actions, and like Meecham you find yourself picking through the evidence, trying to uncover who is the most duplicitous individual in a cast of possibly guilty characters. The plotting is absolutely flawless, and Millar keeps Meecham, and us, in a state of mistrust until the final, and unexpected unmasking of the killer.

The characterisation, particularly in relation to the female characters is just peerless, and I loved the way that each woman Millar introduces are so defined by their difference to the others. We have a femme fatale, a controlling mother, another alcoholic mother, a young doe eyed companion, a strident, though adoring, wife, and so on, each one precisely drawn jumping from the page to our imagination due to the strength of Millar’s characterisation of them. It’s also interesting how she uses her male character, the smart talking and cynical lawyer Meecham, to colour our perception of them further by observing his differing interactions with them, sometimes testy, sometimes flirtatious, or others that reveal a deeper compassionate edge to his character too. All through the book, he is the perfect foil for their particular episodes of scheming, dishonesty or weaknesses of character.  In true hardboiled fashion, both his, and their, cadence of speech and dialogue reflects the razor sharp and clipped style of the genre, conjuring up images of the classic old black and white crime movies with the ‘I speak, now you speak’, style of conversation.

I think we can safely say that Vanish In An Instant was a little gem of a discovery for me, and my hunt for further Margaret Millar books starts here. Her writing is just wonderful, with a tightness yet rhythmic fluidity to her prose that is enviable. A superb plot of red herrings and unexpected twists, populated by a vibrant and perfectly realised group of characters, further adds to the overall distinction of her writing. Cannot recommend highly enough.

(With thanks to Pushkin Press for the ARC)

Nick Kolakowski- A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps

Bill is a hustler’s hustler with a taste for the high life. He pulls off big scores for one of New York City’s more vicious gangs…until he suddenly grows a conscience. However, living the clean life takes a whole lot of money, and so Bill decides to steal a fortune from his employer before skipping town.  With a bag of cash in the trunk of his car, Bill heads west, ready for a new life. But all that money makes him a tempting target for some bad people he meets on the road—and if that wasn’t dangerous enough, some old friends are close behind him, and they intend to make a trophy of his head.  Pursued by crooked cops, dim-witted bouncers, and a wisecracking assassin in the midst of a midlife crisis, Bill will need to be a quick study in the way of the gun if he wants to survive his own getaway. Who knew that an honest attempt at redemption could rack up a body count like this?

Being a confirmed fan of deep down and dirty hardboiled American crime, and in the style of Castle Freeman’s Go With Me, or Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move, Kolakowski ticks all the boxes in this pert and stripped down tale of cross and double cross. Inhabited by a marvellous cast of emotionally battered, violent, scheming, characters all on the make, and up to their necks in trouble, the story veers between biting, razor sharp humour, punchy visceral violence, and a strangely unsettling probing of the character’s inner lives exposing a strange degree of emotional frailty, and the need to be loved. Despite being a relatively slim read, Kolakowski packs it to the gills with movement and action, and also has the good sense to include a feisty kick-assing female character in the testosterone -fuelled mix, who proves a perfect foil to the hapless Bill.

It’s a maelstrom of fast, furious action with Coen-esque tendencies that I whipped through at a cracking pace, fully appreciative of the more surreal concept of a hitman in strange attire that comes out of nowhere, before a brilliantly violent, and strangely pathos filled conclusion.

I have my concerns over how Kolakowski’s mind works, but I found this deliciously deranged and very pleasing indeed. Worryingly, perhaps this also says something about me. Recommended.

 

With a good dose of this…

A bit of this…

And plenty of this…

 

How could you possibly refuse? 

 

(With thanks to Nick for the ARC)

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A Deadly Trio- Domenic Stansberry- The White Devil, Carl-Johan Vallgren- The Tunnel, Steinar Bragi-The Ice Lands

The chilling story of a young American woman in Rome, an aspiring actress, who- together with her brother- is implicated in a series of murders dating back to her childhood. She plays a deadly game, alternately intimate and distant, a cipher of unwholesome impulse, and erotic intrigue…

My, my, my, what a dark and sordid tale of jealousy, desire, and cold-blooded murder this proved to be… and I absolutely loved it. With a down-to-the-bone, spare prose style, so resonant of the American hardboiled noir tradition, and scenes that would not be out of place in a Fellini classic, The White Devil is quite simply perfect in its execution. As we become more deeply entwined with this ice-cold female narrator, Victoria, who slowly reveals her tangled and murderous early history, and the strange dynamics at play in her relationship with her brother Johnny, I began to fear more and more for the unsuspecting individuals whom they set in their sights. The book has the pace and sudden shock value of pure classic Hitchcock, and indeed there is a superb visual quality to Stansberry’s writing, as he leads us amongst the upper echelons of Italian society, the starry world of the movies, and the dimly lit and dangerous streets, that lay behind the glamourous façade of Rome.

In addition, Stansberry draws on themes of politics, religion, and money, drawing on the marked differences, and frames of reference, that Victoria and Johnny as Americans abroad harbour, sharply putting into focus their new world gaucheness, and drive to succeed at any cost,  both to themselves or others. I loved the style of Stansberry’s writing, both in its tautness, and, at times, supreme subtlety, and the eminently unlikeable cast of characters with their selfish intentions, or inherent stupidity, exposed as the dastardly Victoria and Johnny inveigle themselves into their world. Woe betide them…

Hardboiled noir to die for. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Molotov Editions for the ARC)

 

Private investigator Danny Katz is trying to track down his former drug dealer. Ramón and his girlfriend Jenny have both vanished leaving behind a lot of unanswered questions. How come Ramón suddenly found himself in possession of the mother-load of drugs? And is Jenny really who she claims to be?

Katz’s investigation leads him to the darkest corners of Stockholm’s porn industry and once again his old addiction threatens to control him. Ultimately only one thing seems certain – someone is willing to do whatever it takes to keep Katz from discovering the brutal truth…

What begins as a seemingly ordinary crime heist novel, The Tunnel quickly evolves into a multi-layered and very enjoyable Sweden set thriller, driven by the archetypal social analysis, and strong characterisation that defines Scandinavian crime fiction. As the individual stories of its three main protagonists and friends, Jorma, a  career criminal, Katz, a reformed drug addict, and Eva, an emotionally troubled woman who works for the police, play out, Vallgren draws us into a sordid world of sex trafficking and violence.

For me, Vallgren’s portrayal of these three contrary, but nonetheless totally appealing characters, is the lynchpin for the enjoyment of the book, and I found myself utterly engaged with them throughout. There is a nice sense of balance in their characterisation as they are not all paragons of virtues, finding themselves susceptible to their own singular vices and desires, and with Katz in particular Vallgren is given the opportunity to explore Swedish society, and to draw on the Jewish roots of his character to spin the story off in another direction. The central plot is unsettling, bleak and exposes the seedy underbelly of drug addiction and the sex industry, and the manipulation of those who find themselves caught up in, or profiting from this nefarious trades. I also liked the ending that is not neatly tied up with a bow, but instead is quite bleak and uncertain. Vallgren is the closest writer I have found to Cilla and Rolf Bjorland (Spring Tide, Third Voice) who also specialise in social realism, and troubled-but-empathetic characters, and will now be hastily backtracking to read the first book by him, The Boy In The Shadows. A top Scandi-noir recommendation from me.

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)

 

Set against Iceland’s volcanic hinterlands, four thirty-somethings from Reykjavik – the reckless hedonist Egill; the recovering alcoholic Hrafin; and their partners Anna and Vigdis – embark on an ambitious camping trip, their jeep packed with supplies.

Victims of the financial crisis, the purpose of the trip is to heal both professional and personal wounds, but the desolate landscape forces the group to reflect on the shattered lives they’ve left behind in the city. As their jeep hurtles through the barren land, an impenetrable fog descends, causing them to suddenly crash into a rural farmhouse.

Seeking refuge from the storm, the group discover that the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night. As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house? What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground? And most importantly, will they ever return home?

With a nod to Halloween, felt it right to include The Ice Lands in this wee round-up. I would probably describe this as an existential version of The Blair Witch Project, mixed up with Lost with shades of On The Road. I must confess, that for large portions of the book, including the not the most easily comprehensible ending, I was rather confused at quite what the jiggins was going on. Suffused with the dark, bleak and completely terrifying landscape of rural Iceland, and the creepy inhabitants of a house that I’m fairly sure was not constructed of gingerbread, four unwitting, and not entirely likeable egotistic individuals find themselves privy to a nightmare experience. With enough schlock horror moments to keep you on the edge of the seat, and some not always welcome diversions into the world of scientific academia which were initially quite interesting and then waned, Bragi has constructed a unique blend of traditional shocker, and highbrow horror, that chills and perplexes in equal measure. I was dying throughout for these frankly annoying characters to reach grisly ends, but did they? That would be telling. As much as I was confused by some aspects of this tale, I did make it to the end, having had a sense of enjoyment, and frustration, in equal measure. I think overall I liked it, but at times it was just a little…how can I put this… too much up itself for a totally enjoyable reading experience. Sort of recommended.

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)

 

 

Collection: A Rocket Malone Mystery

kobbDisgraced ex-cop Steven ‘Rocket ‘Malone makes a living collecting the memories of the rich at the employ of the sinister Infinity Corp. How does he do it? Simple. He cracks open their skulls and yanks out the implanted hardware. It pays the bills. At least, it would if he wasn’t swimming in gambling debts. Called to the scene of a grisly murder, Rocket runs into a small problem. His client’s head is missing, along with the memories it contains. A beautiful woman, a mysterious foreigner, and an eccentric billionaire all believe Rocket can find the missing memories, and each is willing to pay dearly for the information. Finding this dead man’s memories just might be the solution to Rocket’s problems. And if Rocket can’t find the missing head in time? The people who’ve hired him aren’t the sort who take “no” for an answer…

I’d be the first to admit that I do not have the best track record with books that merge sub-genres, but hallelujah, saints be praised, I have been converted. Oh Yes. With the serendipity that arises from random contacts made through social media, Shawn Kobb appeared on my radar, and jolly glad I am too…

Herein lies a seamless blending of hard-boiled crime, absolutely channelling the spirit of Raymond Carver, playing perfectly alongside a distinctly futuristic and disturbing vision of the sinister world of memory mining from implanted chips. As you can see from the synopsis, our erstwhile hero Steven ‘Rocket’ Malone has his work cut out, reuniting an errant head with a body, evading gambling-debt collectors, trying to resist the charms of a femme fatale and -oh- trying not to get killed or swindled by the nefarious individuals also seeking the contents of said missing head, in downtown Washington DC. Yes, as a plot its a little outlandish, a little quirky, and at times very strange indeed, but do you know what? It works. I thought the storyline was great- tightly written, well-structured and totally entertaining, with its pastiche of the gumshoe era, the hardboiled, spare dialogue, and the little clever nuances of the plot which made this a real read in one night book. Also there was a wonderful feeling that perhaps in part to its overall strangeness you really had not a clue how, and if,  it would resolve itself at the end. It was twisty and surprising, with a great sense of the author genuinely enjoying the whole creative process of the book, and taking his readers on a bit of a day trip to Oddityville. Great.

It’s funny and violent in equal measure with a colourful cast of characters, all pulling at, and trying to manipulate Malone this way and that, as he tries to feather his own nest, and keep his own head intact. He’s a really well-formed character, exuding a mix of roguish charm and street smarts, with a nifty line in caustic humour. I loved the interplay between him and Tony Lee, the resident nerd at Infinity Corp, the malevolent Attila The Hun and his henchman Ladykiller Lou, and his seemingly utter powerlessness in the rarefied air of Selene Belle- the resident femme fatale. Not to mention the unerring antagonism between Malone and the local law enforcement, due to his previously chequered career in the police force. Malone is not a popular chap, but makes for a brilliant protagonist, by turns bruised, abused, but never broken, and  bolstered by an entertaining and amusing cast of ne-er-do-wells all the way.

Having recently had a gruelling repetition of grief and angst in my last few reads, this was an absolute tonic. Smart, sassy and entertaining, Shawn Kobb is one to watch. An excellent book, that I very much hope will develop into a series. A return for Rocket please.

Find out more about Mr Kobb here

(With thanks to the author for the ARC)