#BlogTour- Chuck Caruso- The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity

In a near-future Pacific Northwest, a made-to-order sex robot tests a married couple’s concept of fidelity; in the Tennessee hills of 19th-century America, an itinerant preacher forces others to prove their devotion to God – at gunpoint; and in a settlement town of the Old West, a former outlaw seeking to rescue his deceased brother’s family from a life of poverty discovers to his horror the true meaning of blood. In The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity, Edgar Allan Poe scholar Chuck Caruso combines his deep roots in the American Gothic with his own contemporary sense of macabre humour. These sixteen stories of dark fiction range from crime thrillers to western noir to grotesque horror. Each twisted tale displays Caruso’s unique blend of wry prose, feverish storytelling, and tragically-flawed characters discovering that even the most innocent encounter can lead to death. Or sex. Or both…

Yes, yes I know, short stories are not usually my thang, but with a showbiz name like Chuck Caruso, and the whiff of Poe that the author’s scholarly interest promised, I found the temptation of perversity a little difficult to resist…

The collection is a strange and successful mix of the contemporary and the historical, where Caruso traverses timelines by putting a traditional or futuristic spin on the age old themes of human frailty, and the extreme actions this can provoke, Consequently, these stories cover a lot of ground in terms of their themes ranging, amongst others, from a couple’s will to survive an apocalypse, a wife’s jealousy of her husband’s new sex robot, a man’s simmering resentment for his altogether more popular friend, a pest exterminator who calls on entirely the wrong customer, oh, and a bit of cannibalism too. I liked the way that Caruso unashamedly makes us wince, either in a knowing recognition of the horror that is about to be unleashed, or just simply because that is what the best and darkest writers do to jangle our nerves. There were some nice little nods to Poe in these stories, and before you start thinking that these may be a trifle too dark, there are some genuine moments of emotional complicity and cohesion amongst his characters, although some may not live to tell the tale…

Reading more about the author on the web, his writing also draws comparison to Elmore Leonard, which is another plus point for this reader, and boy oh boy, I was not disappointed in the tales set in the Old West, with their visceral themes of sex, death, revenge and bloodlust. Permeated with swift and violent retribution, I particularly enjoyed this selection of tales, oozing with atmosphere, a perfect rendition of time and location, and as authentic as the sawdust floors, sharp shooting and cathouse violence that we instantly recognise from the traditional western genre. The violence is uncompromising, meted out with little regard, and has all the earthy and primal feel of a time when men were men, however, stupid or gullible they prove to be at the sharp end of Caruso’s writing. There is also a real authenticity to Caruso’s dialogue, and inflections of speech in these tales in particular, and you can almost anticipate the sound of saliva hitting spittoon between their clipped and precise pronouncements. Loved it!

So all in all, a most satisfying collection of, yes, quite perverse tales, and although I did sway towards the western noir ones a little more, overall there was much to enjoy here with Caruso’s razor sharp, slightly strange, and at times darkly witty writing. Recommended.

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Author of The Lawn Job, a wicked, sexy crime thriller from Cloud Lodge Books, Ltd, Chuck Caruso’s crime and horror tales have also appeared in Cemetery Dance, Shroud, and Dark Discoveries, among other print magazines and anthologies. His western noir tales have been published by The Big Adios, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, and The Western Online. His story “They’ll Call Me Whistlin’ Pete” was included in Kwik Krimes, Otto Penzler’s new best-of-the-web crime anthology.

 

Learn more about Chuck by visiting any of the following online interviews:

Author Interviews

Murder by the Book

Buy The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity (UK)

Buy The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity (US)

 

 (With thanks to William Campos at Cloud Lodge Books for the ARC)

 

Blog Tour- Sara Gran- The Infinite Blacktop

Driven off the desert road and left for dead, Claire DeWitt knows that it is someone from her past trying to kill her, she just doesn’t know who. Making a break for it from the cops who arrive on the scene, she sets off in search of the truth, or whatever version of it she can find. But perhaps the biggest mystery of all lies deeper than that, somewhere out there on the ever rolling highway of life….

And so we reach the third instalment of Sara Gran’s terrific series featuring private detective Claire DeWitt, and what a powerhouse of a thriller it is. Tagged as a feminist take on the hardboiled tradition of Raymond Chandler, and described by me on Twitter as ‘Nancy Drew on meth’, this is a fast paced, nerve shredding roller coaster of a ride, with one of the most damaged, but engaging, protagonists in modern crime fiction…

Smoothly moving through three timeframes and criss crossing between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and other locations, Gran has created a perfectly weighted account of her DeWitt’s journey from fledgling junior detective, with two of her childhood friends (and a myriad of cases with the best Nancy Drew-esque monickers) through her development of skills under the tutelage of the enigmatic and eccentric private detective Constance Darling, to the current gigantic and dangerous sh*tstorm she finds herself in, as her past comes back to wreak revenge in the present. Not one to be deterred, despite the physical danger she often finds herself in, DeWitt continues her reputation as being as lethal as a cornered wild animal, and draws on all her cunning and ingenuity to track down the man who wishes her dead, opening up the dark experiences from her past, and the path to self destruction that she seems set to embark on. DeWitt is quite simply a gloriously kick ass character, driven by dark impulses, but sometimes showing moments of extreme emotional vulnerability, that when they come are as powerful in the narrative as the aura of violence and isolation that DeWitt embodies. Fuelled daily by a cocktail of liquor and drugs, which would lesser mortals into a catatonic state, we bear witness to the sleeplessness and hallucinations this produces, but also the steely edge and grim determination that this invokes in DeWitt. I found myself veering between like and dislike for her throughout the book, which is always a good reading experience, and I think most readers will experience the same. Gran’s characterisation of both DeWitt and her surrounding cast is superb, and skilfully encompass all the vices and virtues that make up the human psyche to one extreme or the other.

Before you are all set to thinking that this may all just be leading to a linear crime caper, there are two more facets of this book that Gran excels at. First is the whip smart dialogue which is tight, precise and, in the true hardboiled tradition of Chandler et al, gives a verve and tautness to the periods of interaction between character. This applies equally to the general writing style of the book, where truly no word is wasted, and the prose is crisp, cutting and perfectly rendered. Secondly, Gran also takes us on a cerebral journey referencing a book on detection, subtly titled ‘Detection’ by Jacques Silette (himself the tutor of DeWitt’s mentor Constance Darling) which Gran uses to illustrate the differing ‘schools’ of private detection, and their contrasting methods and mind-sets. I found these diversions in the multi-layered narrative, extremely effective, and perhaps these, more than other elements of the book, so clearly define why DeWitt is as mercurial as she is, and what drives her to succeed, despite the extremely dark events that have tarnished her emotional core.

I am a real fan of this series, and if you like your crime with a tantalisingly dangerous edge to it, powered by punchy dialogue, a dark wit, an even darker DeWitt herself, and a more psychological, cerebral feel this is one series you cannot ignore.  Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

 

Follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Pierre Lemaitre- Inhuman Resources

Alain Delambre is a 57-year-old former HR executive, drained by four years of hopeless unemployment. All he is offered are small, demoralizing jobs. He has reached his very lowest ebb, and can see no way out. So when a major company finally invites him to an interview, Alain Delambre is ready to do anything, borrow money, shame his wife and his daughters and even participate in the ultimate recruitment test: a role-playing game that involves hostage-taking. Alain Delambre commits body and soul in this struggle to regain his dignity.  But if he suddenly realised that the dice had been loaded against him from the start, his fury would be limitless. And what began as a role-play game could quickly become a bloodbath…

As well as producing one of the finest crime series, and a collection of unique standalones, Lemaitre once again demonstrates the reach and depth of his literary skill in this dark, cynical and twisted tale, which provides a perfect allegory of the daily struggle of the downtrodden individual against the power of the few…

Quickly, I was struck by how Lemaitre’s use of the absurd in the book, mirroring in style the venerable Pascal Garnier, becomes a powerful literary tool to cast an unflinching glare on the world of work, business and exploitation in French society, but by extension in every culture. By focussing on an older protagonist such as Alain Delambre, we feel the frustration and subjugation that he experiences, nearing the twilight years of his working life, and the disempowerment he rages against as he is unceremoniously thrown on the employment scrapheap. This is the cue for Lemaitre himself to rail against the exclusion of older workers, and the hugely depressing statistics concerning employees and unemployment, which pepper the book. Delambre is an angry man and incensed by the demeaning of his worth, so he formulates a plan: a plan that has severe implications for himself and his loving family. The extreme measures that Delambre undertakes, that dishonour both him and his family are shown to be symptomatic of a larger problem in society and Lemaitre addresses these with a razor sharp and cynical eye.

However, before you begin to think that this sounds like a fairly linear tale of a desperate man taking desperate measures to gain a foothold back in the world of employment, Lemaitre turns the tables on us, and in no short order we have a hostage crisis, embezzlement, computer fraud, a seriously ticked off security operative, violence, a family in disarray, a car chase, a court case and more. Taken in its entirety, Lemaitre beautifully paces moments of extreme pathos, and a general headshaking at the world of big business, with episodes of such verve and tension that add an energy and vigour to this seemingly mundane tale of the little man’s struggle in the face of unrelenting financial and emotional pressure. I loved the increasing confidence of Delambre as he formulates his plan to turn the tables, and the gradual shedding of his previously held morality to achieve his aim, despite the extraordinary sense of betrayal experienced by his wife and daughters. He proves with every fibre of his being that you can teach an old dog new tricks, and if these tricks happen to land him in a whole heap of trouble, he proves himself unafraid to take the chance, despite some unwelcome consequences.

Once again the seamless translation by Sam Gordon, picks up all the elasticity of Lemaitre’s manipulation and use of language, and heightens the perfect structuring and narrative pace that builds tension, and ratchets up the sense of human frailty and newly acquired resilience that Delambre embodies. I found this a hugely satisfying read, for not only the cynical yet pertinent appraisal of the exploitative world of business and its effect on older workers, but also as a genuinely pacey and endlessly surprising thriller as Delambre’s life appears to descend into violent freefall. Smartly done, and as a thriller with a difference, highly recommended,

(With thanks to Maclehose Press for the ARC)

Catch up with the Inhuman Resources #BookBlast at these excellent sites:

 

 

Manchette’s Fatale- Adapted by Max Cabanes and Doug Headline

AAAAAimée is a beautiful young widow she s also a killer. Driven by a deep-rooted desire for revenge, she sets about uncovering the secrets of the inhabitants of the sleepy rural town of Bleville, before ruthlessly murdering them. Faced with corruption of a kind she had scarcely imagined, she discovers a deeply moral core under her murderous instincts…

Okay, I’ll put my hands up from the start and say that I never read graphic novels. Well, actually I did manage half of From Hell by Alan Moore some years ago, but never finished as I probably got distracted by something else. Having idly flicked through graphic novels at work- whilst scratching my head over where, and in what series I should shelve them- my general impression of them is that they are mostly populated by a cast of grotesques, and semi-clad women with unfeasibly pert breasts. But I digress. Grasping the bull by the horns, so to speak, and putting my preconceptions aside I embarked on this one with more than a whiff of curiosity…

Adapting the seminal French thriller Fatale by world-renowned noir crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette into graphic novel form, I imagine, was no mean feat. There is so much darkness, betrayal and violence in the original slim read, underscored by the dispassionate and spare prose of one of the finest noir writers who ever lived, that the reader themselves need to really home in on what is not said by Manchette as much as what he offers up to us with veiled references and the air of burgeoning menace throughout. I was more than a little hesitant, as a staunch reader of fiction where your own imagination comes into play, that my perception of these characters would be undone by reading such a visual representation, and leaving me less for my own imagination to construct for itself. However, my anxieties were largely assuaged, because as much as this book does contain a cast of grotesques and a saucily semi-clad/nude Aimee (with unfeasibly pert breasts) the absolute adherence to Manchette’s novel by Doug Headline, and the darkness that Max Cabanes insinuates into the artwork captures the mood and feel of the original book perfectly with each frame remaining true to the original text. The liberal use of midnight blue and pared down colour, the visual representations of some of the central cast, and the completely no-holds barred depiction of the swift and brutal violence of the book were well-executed throughout. However, on balance, I did find the actual experience of reading this a little unsatisfying, maybe because I was too familiar with the story to begin with, and there wasn’t enough to stimulate my own imagination, but I definitely appreciated the quality of the artwork overall. All in all an interesting digression for the Raven, but probably unlikely to be a regular genre for me.

(With thanks to Titan for the ARC)

 

Bernhard Aichner- Woman of the Dead

ber Billed as a tantalising combination of Dexter, Kill Bill and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, here for your delectation and delight, is another highly enjoyable slice of European crime fiction. Focussing on the character of Blum, the widowed mother of two young daughters, and the owner of a funeral home, The Woman of the Dead, is a singularly intriguing thriller, that opens with an extremely unsettling scene eight years previously, and then transporting us to the present to a scene of domestic bliss. This picture of homely comfort- a mother, father and two young daughters- is then forcibly shattered when Blum’s police officer husband, Mark, is killed on the road outside of their home, in an apparent hit-and-run. Fighting against the tidal wave of loss this produces, Blum discovers through a series of her husband’s recordings of an interview with a young immigrant woman, that his death is inextricably linked to his investigation into this young woman’s experiences as a formerly imprisoned sex slave. What Blum further discovers is that the men who are guilty of this abuse are notable figures in the local community, and with revenge boiling hard in her veins, Blum seeks to track down this woman, and exact revenge on her abusers, and her husband’s killer. Blum’s role as the avenging angel is clear to see, but what of her own murky past and the secrets she carries within? It was gratifying to see that Aichner had spent six months as an undertaker’s assistant to add credence to the more visceral details of the story, as there is a wonderfully sensitive handling of the everyday business of Blum’s handling of the dead. This sensitivity is beautifully balanced with Blum’s one woman bloody mission to track down and punish her husband’s killer or killers, where her retribution is swift and uncompromising. This is a brutal, and unrelenting read, peppered with vivid scenes of violent that by turns shock and jolt the reader, and with the added frisson of many of these being committed by a woman, the shock value intensifies. Despite the more graphic details (which some readers may struggle with) I was not unduly disturbed by them, and found the balance between Blum’s family life and professional standing, was perfectly weighted with this completely opposite picture we get of her. She is a completely intriguing character, encompassing a blend of strong morality which is then shaken by the slowly revealed less savoury aspects of her past, giving the reader a multi-faceted woman, who will challenge your empathy, as your opinion of her will undoubtedly change and change again as the book progresses. As I have said Aichner pulls no punches where the subject of sexual and physical violence arises, and this merely compounded for me his wider comment on the subject of sex-trafficking and abuse that young women immigrants can encounter in their search for a better life. The fact that Blum as a woman, later aided by Reza an employee at the funeral home, who himself has a back story of violence and immigration, adds a karma-like feel to their pursuit of the guilty, compounding the intensity of Aichner’s sociological observations on the plight of immigrants throughout Europe. It’s a strong message, strongly delivered, of the damaging effects, and the all too common danger and violence that these protagonists encounter, adding again to the power and intensity of the book. Likewise, the simple and dispassionate feel to Aichner’s prose, heightens the emotionally intense and claustrophobic feel to the novel. Perhaps a nod to the translator Anthea Bell is warranted here for the exact and compelling translation that fuels this intensity throughout. I am a huge fan of spare, pared down prose and curtailed dialogue, more commonly observed in American crime fiction, and so this was a eminently satisfying style for me. Overall, this was a brave, unsettling, but hugely compelling crime thriller that I can’t recommend highly enough if you are of stout heart and stomach. European crime fiction at its best. Bernhard Aichner was born in 1972 and lives in Innsbruck, Austria, where he works as an author and photographer. Visit his website here  Anthea Bell has won numerous awards for her translations. Best known for her translation of the Asterix series, Bell was awarded an OBE in 2010 for services to literature. (With thanks to Orion for the ARC)