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)

 

 

Blog Tour- M. P. Wright- Restless Coffins

1969, Bristol. Bajan ex- cop and reluctant private detective, Joseph ‘JT’ Tremaine Ellington is still trading in cash and favours, lending a helping hand to those too scared to go to the police or anyone trying to stay one step ahead of them.
Life is tough for JT, who is broke. It is about to get a lot tougher when he receives a telegram informing him of a tragedy that has unfolded thousands of miles away. Ellington’s sister, Bernice has been murdered. Ellington wants to make the long journey back to his home on the island of Barbados to pay his final respects and to settle his late sister’s affairs. To do so, he must accept a ticket from his shady cousin, Vic, on condition he travels to New York first, where Vic is building himself a criminal empire in Harlem.
JT soon discovers that Vic is the American end of an operation that stretches back to Barbados, and that Vic’s business partner is Conrad Monroe, the man responsible for the death of JT’s wife and daughter. As JT finds himself embroiled in the world of drugs, bent law, voodoo and the bitter legacy of slavery, he must return to the island of his birth and face the demons of his past

Having quietly championed the first two books in the J. T. Elington trilogy , Heartman and All Through The Night , as both a blogger and a bookseller, it was with a sense of anticipation that I approached the reading of Restless Coffins.  As life conspires to kick Ellington in the teeth again, you know things are going to get a bit lively, but with the intervention of his wayward cousin Vic, it can only get downright dangerous…

Obviously, having been following the books already, the doom laden back story of JT is firmly established in my mind already, but fear not dear reader, the set up of Restless Coffins is quite accessible to the first time reader, if you randomly begin here. With the first two books being so firmly set in the UK, this book also strikes a broader appeal as the story travels from Bristol, to the gangs of Harlem, to the hoodoo voodoo of New Orleans and then propels us to the bloody denouement in JT’s native Barbados. By broadening the book in this way, it also enabled Wright to consolidate his position as, in my opinion, one of the finest purveyors of descriptive fiction in the thriller genre. His attention to detail, to atmosphere building, to location, to the very make up of whatever environment he places his characters into, is absolutely second to none. Every scene is loaded with precise and vivid detail, more commonly encountered in literary fiction, which enshrouds you completely, and transports you with absolute clarity to the environs of his character’s experiences. Every location, every means of transport, every person, everything JT sees and experiences, puts us there with him, entwining us even more intensely with the book.

Likewise, Wright’s characterisation is pitch perfect as usual, and the intensity he imbues in JT in particular, is absolutely compelling. JT’s emotional, complicated, self questioning inner life must be exhausting to convey to the page, and every scene that puts the spotlight solely on this character, is an emotional rollercoaster for JT as well as the reader. As well as the constant pull on his emotions through the loss of those closest to him, both by birth, by marriage, and by association, he undergoes an extreme amount of physical assault. Indeed, the fight scenes are so precisely written I have an image of the author throwing himself his writing room choreographing them to the nth degree of detail, and by extension in the aftermath of JT’s physical encounters, the reader, through the exact descriptions, can feel every cut, every bruise. As well as being a hugely sympathetic character, there is always a degree of questioning from him, at times struggling to keep his emotions and impulses in check, showing his very real human frailty, but steadfastly demonstrating his loyalty to those closest to him, and to the memory of those he has lost. A troubled and complicated man, but also one of great integrity.

And then there’s cousin Vic.

Glorious, dangerous, slippery, sharp-talking Vic. I adore him. You just know that Vic’s gonna turn up, shake up JT’s world a little more, and tweak the nose of death along the way, and that he does. Brilliant. With the new American cast of characters, and some unwelcome faces from JT’s past, there are a host of good, bad and in some cases, exceptionally ugly people to keep JT and Vic on their toes, and the reader thoroughly entertained, horrified, or enraged. There’s some real bad folks in this one.

With Wright’s finely honed ear for the lilting cadence and rhythm of the Caribbean and American dialects, the use of language and dialogue is never less than perfectly authentic, and you quickly assume the pace and rhythm of each interaction. The heat, the atmosphere, the pulsing of human life, the frailties and strengths of his characters, and the rush of blood in violence, assails your mind and senses throughout Restless Coffins, leading to a completely immersive reading experience. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Black and White Publishing for the ARC)

 

Catch up with the blog tour at these excellent sites: 

A Belated Round-Up- Matt Wesolowski- Six Stories/ Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich- The Fact Of A Body/ Lone Theils-Fatal Crossing/ The Crime Book

I’ve done my usual trick of reading many, many books, but have then left the writing of reviews for far too long (hangs head in shame, looking chastened etc…) So in this post I will try to provide some kind of cohesive summaries of these, and hopefully you may find something among them to tickle your fancy!

1997. Scarclaw Fell. The body of teenager Tom Jeffries is found at an outward bound centre. Verdict? Misadventure. But not everyone is convinced. And the truth of what happened in the beautiful but eerie fell is locked in the memories of the tight-knit group of friends who embarked on that fateful trip, and the flimsy testimony of those living nearby. 2017. Enter elusive investigative journalist Scott King, whose podcast examinations of complicated cases have rivalled the success of Serial, with his concealed identity making him a cult internet figure. In a series of six interviews, King attempts to work out how the dynamics of a group of idle teenagers conspired with the sinister legends surrounding the fell to result in Jeffries’ mysterious death. And who’s to blame …

With its highly innovative use of the serial podcast structure, Wesolowski’s widely-reviewed and praised Six Stories weaves a dark and disturbing tale of murder, jealousy and teenage angst pivoting between two distinctive timelines. Setting up each individual’s recounting of events surrounding an ill-fated trip as teenagers to an outward bound centre, Wesolowski uses the trope of unreliable narration to the max, as each protagonist’s recollection is laid out before us. The structure works well, causing the reader to question the veracity of each witness’ or suspect’s testimony, although you may pick up on something quite early on, but then delight in having your suspicion’s confirmed. I loved the very naturalistic style of Wesolowski’s portrayal of the wild and dangerous beauty of his imagined location of Scarclaw Fell, which reminded me strongly of the brilliant Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers, where the location so strongly mirrors the darkness and sinister tension of the main plot. Six Stories is certainly refreshingly different with its quirky structure and clarity of description, and Wesolowski taps in perfectly to both the teenager’s experiences, but also intuitively counterbalancing it with their later perspective on events as adults. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working on the retrial defence of death-row convicted murderer and child molester, Ricky Langley, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti death penalty. But the moment Ricky’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes, the moment she hears him speak of his crimes, she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case, realizing that despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar. Crime, even the darkest and most unspeakable acts, can happen to any one of us, and as Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining minute details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, to reckon with how her own past colours her view of his crime…

With more than warranted comparisons to such true crime classics as In Cold Blood and Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil, Alexandria Marzano- Lesnevich’ s powerful, thought-provoking and intensely moving memoir, recounting the darker periods of her childhood, and her fledgling career in  law is one of the best non-fiction books I have encountered for some time. Tracing and examining her own emotional development from a childhood of abuse and family denial, and her involvement as a young lawyer in one of America’s most thorny and haunting crime cases, The Fact Of A Body raises as many questions as it answers regarding crime and punishment, as well as providing the reader with a deep insight into the life of this remarkable woman whose seemingly firm beliefs in the immorality of the death penalty are so roundly challenged and undermined by the retrial of notorious murderer Ricky Langley. As much as this is non-fiction, the author’s lightness of touch, and her powerful and intensely descriptive, scene setting, gives a feeling of fiction to the whole affair, adding to the reader’s engagement and the sheer readability of the book. One of my personal heroes since my teenage years has been English lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, due to his tireless quest for justice for death row prisoners in the United States, and the author’s own professional involvement with this remarkable man is strongly bound up in the narrative throughout, adding another layer of interest for this reader. I found this an emotional, compelling and utterly fascinating read, and as only a sporadic reader of non-fiction, this had me completely transfixed. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)

When a picture of two Danish girls who disappeared on a boat bound for England in 1985 emerges many years later in an old suitcase from a British second-hand dealer, the journalist Nora Sand’s professional curiosity is immediately awakened. But before she knows it, she is mixed up in the case of a serial killer who is serving a life sentence in a notorious prison, and the quest to discover the truth about the missing girls may be more dangerous that she had ever imagined…

With its satisfying mix of Scandinavian crime thriller, and more than a nod to Silence of the Lambs, I thoroughly enjoyed Fatal Crossing,  first of a series introducing Danish journalist Nora Sand. Nora proves herself an eminently likeable protagonist with her dogged reporter style, and her complicated private life, with the story criss-crossing nicely between Denmark and the UK, balancing well her part-time assimilation from her homeland to her life and work in London. With an intriguingly dark, well-plotted investigation, and the shadow of a notorious serial killer looming large within Sand’s quest for the truth, there were enough twists and tension to keep me reading. As an aside, Nora also provides some great moments of acerbic wit throughout, which provided some good pockets of light relief as the story unfolded. Very keen to read the next one. Recommended.

(With thanks to Arcadia Books for the ARC)

An essential guide to criminology, exploring the most infamous cases of all time, from serial killers to mob hits to war crimes and more.

From Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, The Crime Book is a complete study of international true crime history that unpacks the shocking stories through infographics and in-depth research that lays out every key fact and detail. Examine the science, psychology, and sociology of criminal behavior, and read profiles of villains, victims, and detectives. See each clue and follow the investigation from start to finish, and study the police and detective work of each case…

Having treated myself to the Sherlock Holmes Book from the same series. how could I resist this big, bold and beautifully illustrated compendium of dark deeds and murder from across the centuries? With a global representation of murderers, robbers, tricksters and shysters, this covers cases old and new, the well known and the less so, in one visually pleasing and mentally stimulating edition of all things crime. Divided into eight categories including Bandits, Robbers and Arsonists, Con Artists, White Collar Crimes, Kidnapping and Extortion, Murder Cases, Organized Crime, Assassinations and Political Plots and Serial Killers there are a whole host of illustrations, infographics and tantalising titbits to delve into…

The Crime Book not only focuses on the particulars of this myriad of cases, but also explores the world of forensics, psychological profiling, and the media representation of these most notorious of cases. With an introduction by British crime writer Peter James, this is a book that offers much to explore, and the best tips on how to get away- or not- with murder…

Mwahahaha….

(With thanks to Dorling Kindersley for the ARC)

 

 

 

 

#BlogTour- J. M. Gulvin- The Contract

In New Orleans, Texas Ranger John Q is out of his jurisdiction, and possibly out of his depth. It seems everyone in Louisiana wants to send him home, and every time he asks questions there’s trouble: from the pharmacist to the detective running scared to the pimp who turned to him as a last resort. Before John Q knows it, he looks the only link between a series of murders. So who could be trying to set him up, and why, and who can he turn to in a city where Southern tradition and family ties rule?

Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing J. M. Gulvin’s debut thriller, The Long Count  featuring Texas Ranger John Quarrie- a tough guy who could out-tough Jack Reacher.  The Contract sees John Q uprooted from his native Texas to the pulsing heart of New Orleans in this tale of corruption and exploitation echoing the reverberations of the Kennedy assassination…

John Q is a brilliant construct, oozing masculinity and toughness in a highly self-contained way, and like the heroes of the American Western tradition, imbued with a rigid core of morality and decency that permeates his dealing with those that have sinned and are sinned against. In comparison to other tough guy figures of modern crime thriller writing, he doesn’t go in for mawkish naval gazing, having found himself a sole parent, does not get drawn into unbelievable love entanglements, and when he does occasionally get his butt kicked we know that it does actually smart a bit.  Gulvin has characterised him with a laconic speech pattern that also plays into this hero tradition, and the brooding quality of the moral avenger. It works incredibly well, as Quarrie proves a menacing opponent for the cast of amateur hitmen and corrupt society figures that his jaunt to New Orleans uncovers.

The absolute stand out feature for me of the two books to date is the exceptionally visual nature of Gulvin’s writing. As he transports the reader between the two disparate locales of Texas and New Orleans, the depiction of both is beautifully realised. The stretching, arid and barren landscape of Texas where Quarrie dwells with his young son is the extreme opposite of the sultry, sensual New Orleans where violence always seems to dwell just beneath the surface. As Quarrie takes up temporary residence in New Orleans, Gulvin moves us effortlessly around the thoroughfares, taking snapshots of the architectural heritage, and immersing us in the culture, politics and spiritual traditions of this unique city. There’s racial tension, sexual exploitation, corruption, and the shadow of the Vietnam War. Coupled with the use of Jim Garrison- a lead figure in the investigation into the Kennedy assassination- and other cultural and social references that firmly fix this book in a period of space and time, Gulvin’s research and attention to detail raises this book above the simple tag of thriller into a richly rewarding read. In common with Tim Baker’s Fever City,  Gulvin provides little teasing references to future seismic events, that the modern reader quickly recognises, again adding another layer of interest into the story. It’s neatly done, but not to the point that it feels contrived.

Tapping firmly into my affection for the more literary, less overtly bish-bash-bosh crime thriller, and replete with period detail and sense of place, Gulvin has confidently matched the success of The Long Count for this reader. On tenterhooks to see what John Q will become entangled in next… Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

 

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