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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Helen Giltrow- The Distance

GILTROW

They don’t call her Karla anymore. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison. Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do. The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there. It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up. So why can’t she say no?

Can I just start by saying how I would love to fling my arms around Helen Giltrow and give her a jolly good hug. And here’s why. Over the course of the last couple of months, I have started and failed to finish at least half a dozen thrillers, soon becoming bored with the all too familiar set-ups, and predictable plots. What Giltrow has done is to construct an intelligent and thought provoking thriller that not only provided a slow-burning build up of tension, but was chockful of credible characters, and a tightly plotted narrative that never once made my attention falter. I was in this one all the way…

Starting with the intriguing premise of breaking someone into an experimental prison complex called The Program, to perform a hit, I was instantly intrigued by the depiction of this location. The Program works as an almost self-sufficient prison community, constructed around a run down neighbourhood of houses with its own places of business and rules, but is a nightmarish place to be incarcerated if you are not aligned with the head honchos. Hence, the idea of a professional hitman, Johanssen  needing to be placed within this complex to track down someone who may or may not be there, instantly provokes a taut tension to the story. With his actions overseen by the mysterious intelligence operative Charlotte Alten aka Karla, who has spent years selling secrets to shady criminals. Giltrow neatly builds up Karla’s reservations and fears for her former client Johanssen’s safety as he becomes a brutalised inmate of this violent jail- an excellent cast of baddies are at work here- seeking to avoid detection by those he has tangled with in the past. The depiction of his experience are violent and uncompromising, but this adds to inherent tension of the plot, as Johanssen seeks the elusive Cate, but why is she so hard to find and who wants her dead?

Alongside this taut and utterly riveting storyline, Giltrow ramps up the narrative structure with an exploration of Karla’s chequered career in the realm of secret intelligence, and weighting both plots perfectly, Giltrow retains an assured grasp throughout. Attention must be paid I found as this book in no way resembles the usual linear, and frankly quite boring, liturgy of espionage thrillers that currently populate crime and thriller sections throughout the land. Indeed, to my mind, the style of Giltrow’s writing can be viewed as a contemporary version of Helen MacInnes, which is no mean feat. Likewise, the characterisation of Karla herself, and Johanssen, are absolutely paramount to the engagement of the reader. Both are incredibly well-drawn with the necessary balance of steely-eyed determination, masking their dark secrets and ulterior motives, but with those wonderful moments of clarity that draw us closer to their true characters, despite their criminal tendancies. These are not your standard cardboard-cutout characters, and you will find your perception of both changing chapter by chapter, and I guarantee that Cate will also have you on tenterhooks throughout, as her life outside and inside The Program come under closer scrutiny. That’s all I’m saying…

As you can probably tell, I was really quite keen on this, and despite how long it has taken me to get round to reading the book, it was more than worth the wait and delivered in spades. Can’t wait to see what Giltrow produces next. Highly recommended.

Helen Giltrow was born and brought up in Cheltenham and read Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford. She has worked extensively in publishing, including ten years as a commissioning editor for Oxford University Press. She went freelance as an editor in 2001 and has since worked on a range of fiction, non-fiction and education titles. THE DISTANCE is her first novel. Helen’s writing has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Telegraph ‘Novel in a Year’ Competition. Follow on Twitter @HelenGiltrow