#BlogTour- David F. Ross- Welcome To The Heady Heights

It’s the year punk rock was born, Concorde entered commercial service and a tiny Romanian gymnast changed the sport forever. Archie Blunt is a man with big ideas. He just needs a break for them to be realised. In a bizarre brush with the light-entertainment business, Archie unwittingly saves the life of the UK’s top showbiz star, Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks’, and now dreams of hitting the big-time as a Popular Music Impresario. Seizing the initiative, he creates a new singing group with five unruly working-class kids from Glasgow’s East End. Together, they make the finals of a televised Saturday-night talent show, and before they know it, fame and fortune beckon for Archie and The High Five. But there’s a complication; a trail of irate Glaswegian bookies, corrupt politicians and a determined Scottish WPC known as The Tank are all on his tail…

I think it’s fair to say that Welcome To The Heady Heights, got a firm grip on me from the outset, leading to my comment on social media that “It’s all a bit mental. And I like that,” which became a familiar refrain when my curious bookselling colleagues asked me what the hell I was reading, with my poorly suppressed sniggering in the staffroom. What can I say? The book is wickedly funny, earthy, and goes to some very dark places indeed…

Straightaway, I was sucked into this book, in common with Alan Parks brilliant Bloody January which also plunges us into the moral and social cesspool of 1970s Glasgow. As an era defined by its suppression and mistreatment of the working class and the down at heel, whilst trying to gentrify and exploit society in equal measure. Although there is an unrelenting and brutal truthfulness to the city that Ross’ characters traverse, there is also an underlying feel of extreme pride and sympathy gravitating from Ross through his depiction of the city, the era, and his cast of misfortunates. In common with the great Irvine Welsh, life is grim, but there are moments of humour, epiphany and success that underscore the general downtrodden existence of Ross’ characters, and Archie Blunt in particular, most certainly getting closer to the gutter, being on the brink of losing his job, but coerced into the fakery of the world of light entertainment. The book is a real love letter to the 70s, peppered with cultural references, yes, I’m not a fan of Bohemian Rhapsody either, scaramouche my arse, and similarly to Benjamin Myers Turning Blue, homing in the world that came to light with the recent Yew Tree investigations. Equally, Ross shines an unflattering light on the rise of the corrupt businessman in the political world, and how dodgy contracts and oiled palms led to a generation of high rise building, heralded to those misfortunate to live in them as the best thing since sliced bread. This whole dirty whiff of corruption, be it police, financial, sexual,  or otherwise permeates the story, and the threat of violence and retribution is never far from the surface.

Ross has a real talent for characterisation, and I particularly enjoyed the stress and strain that he puts Archie through as the book progresses, revealing a tenacity and strength behind his somewhat timid exterior. As we see Archie getting sucked deeper and deeper into the murky waters of the Glasgow underworld, we are also become privy to a wide and interesting array of characters from both sides of the law. A tenacious female journalist on the trail of a corrupt businessman, Archie’s less than snowy white criminal associates, a group of dodgy lads aiming for the stars, and a resolute, although belittled female police officer palmed off with missing persons cases begins to see a cabal of depravity at work. As I said, the book takes us to some very dark places, but within his cast of characters, Ross balances humour, pathos and retribution beautifully, with the Glasgow vernacular front and centre, and a resigned balance of optimism and pessimism amongst his protagonists, which adds to their realism and our reactions to them as readers. I loved the mordant wit, and the very defined sense of the goodies, the baddies, and the generally confused. Will definitely be tracking back to read Ross’ Disco Days Trilogy, as this book proved to be a wee twisted gem, giving this reader a very warm welcome to the Heady Heights. A thoroughly gritty, uncompromising and entertaining throwback to the 70s and totally recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Revisit the blog tour at these excellent sites:

 

 

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.”

 

 

Peter May- Runaway

RUNAs much as it pains me to draw on the words of Forrest Gump, Peter May’s writing is like a box of chocolates- you never know what you’re going to get. From the brilliant Enzo Files series, to the China thrillers, to, the wonderful Hebridean trilogy, and the haunting standalone Entry Island, May consistently demonstrates his flexibility as a writer, instilling total belief in his characters and locations for us gentle readers. Runaway proves itself an excellent addition to his multifarious back catalogue, and drawing so closely on his own life experiences gives us a delightful insight into the background of one of Britain’s finest crime writers*.

Working with a dual timeline of 1965 and 2015 the story pivots seamlessly between the two as we follow the travails of Jack Mackay, a headstrong seventeen year old in the Sixties, who succumbs to the allure of the bright lights of London, as he and his band (comprising of Maurie, Joe, Luke and my favourite character, Dave) run away from Scotland to seek their fame and fortune. May captures perfectly the impetuousness of youth, and their black and white view of the world, after a series of hapless accidents mar their dreams of fame. Into the mix, May inserts the womanly charms of Rachel, Maurie’s cousin who they liberate from a drug-fuelled abusive relationship along the way, a few interesting brushes with stardom, an encounter with a bizarre hippy therapy group, and a murder where all is not how it appears. With a backdrop of the swinging music scene of the era, and a perfect recreation of London itself, there is much to garner the reader’s interest. Now, zap forward to 2015, and Jack is a disillusioned pensioner lamenting a life where so much more could have happened, However, with the news of a suspicious death linked to his 60’s experience, and spurred on by the terminally ill Maurie, he and the remaining members of his band, up sticks to London with his grandson Ricky, to revisit the past and lay some old ghosts to rest but at what cost? And are some skeletons best to be left nestled in this particular cupboard?

My overarching reaction to this book is one of warmth. I loved the poignancy attached to Jack and his cohorts in their twilight years, haunted by their failed dreams and ambitions, but undercut by a humour and determination of spirit that we so often ignore when we perceive people as old. Likewise, May totally taps into the irascibility and naivety of youth, in the 60’s timeline, and the exploits of this band of hotheads, and their emotional entanglements are powerfully wrought. To my mind, the actual crime element of this book was completely over-ridden by this strong characterisation and the examination of the impetuousness of youth, and the stoicism of age that so dominates the plot. Hence, this was a different reading experience, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed, manipulating my emotions from laughter to sadness, and all points in-between. I liked the utterly authentic recreation of the 1960’s, with its allusions to people, places and fashions, tempered by the relatively anodyne existence of our band of misfits in their later years. A welcome break from the usual crime fiction fare, and highly recommended.

*If like me, you are left wondering how much of May’s experiences are contained in Runaway, have a look at this interview courtesy of Shots, the crime and thriller Ezine, and here at Crime Fiction Lover

Also many thanks to fellow blogger Fiction Fan  for drawing my attention to this musical triumph:

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC)