Thursday, May 29, 2008

THE COLD SPOT by Tom Piccirilli

Bantam Press, 2008, $6.99, 9780553590845

Chase has been a getaway driver all his life. After the death of his parents, he’s been raised by his grandfather Jonah, brought up in a world of thieves and grifters and con artists. He’s a born driver, but maybe not a born criminal. After witnessing his grandfather’s dispatch of one of his own gang, Chase decides its time to get out.

He never counted on falling in love with a cop.

Building something close to a normal life.

And he really didn’t plan on having all of that taken away.

Tom Piccirilli was the man responsible for last year’s wonderful noir masterpiece, The Fever Kill, and here he turns back to the crime genre again with the incredible, The Cold Spot, a brilliantly paced revenge thriller with a genuinely human heart. When we think of getaway drivers, its easy to think of them being akin to a Parker character: cold, uninvolved and professional. Think what they tried to do with Jason Stratham’s character in the movie, The Transporter or, as a far better example, the character of Lennon in Duane Swierczynski’s The Wheel Man. And, sure, Piccirilli makes Chase an absolute professional, but here he fleshes out that archetype by giving him…

… a life.

The first half of the book, taken up as it is with Chase’s life could seem like so much unnecessary window dressing if it weren’t for the fact that Piccirilli knows how important it is to get us to understand his hero. Any good revenge drama relies on us being on the side of the revenger, understanding his psychology. It has to be more complex than some archetypal revenge fantasy a-la Deathwish if we to truly feel anything. And Piccirilli is a master at helping us to empathise with his cast. He’s been at this game a long time and even his most despicable creations seem to have been at least comprehensible to the reader. But Chase… he must be a good man at heart for this to work. We have to understand him beyond his role as Getaway Driver, and by seeing him leave the life, fall in love, build a normal existence… we are on his side. We know what he has worked for to have all of this. He has given up many things, adjusted his world view, made sacrifices and ultimately – despite his past – he deserves this quiet, peaceful, beautiful new life.

So when it is snatched away by a gang of criminals with itchy trigger fingers, we understand his rage and frustration and loss. We are right there with him. We can feel the sense of, why did this have to happen? Why wasn’t I there to stop this?

And we understand why Chase can only turn to one man for help in finding the cold spot, that place inside of him that will help take revenge like he was taking care of business. We understand why he turns to his grandfather Jonah, the man he took such great pains to leave behind in the first place.

The relationship between Chase and Jonah that takes up much of the second half of the book is a complex and unsettling double act. Jonah represents a dark side of Chase that he doesn’t want have to confront, but is something he must control and use if he is to heal those wounds inside of him. As Chase constantly walks the line between the life he wants and the life that Jonah offers, we find the central conflict of the book, and indeed of any good revenge drama: will the act of revenge change our character beyond recognition? Turn him into the very thing he is reacting against?

It’s a tension that Piccirilli exploits beautifully in the last third of the book without offering any overly easy answers or guarantees of salvation. Indeed anyone who’s read Piccirilli’s work before will know that he doesn’t offer guarantees in his stories. And that uncertainty is what keeps those pages turning.

Throw into the mix some larger themes that set the groundwork for further books in the series. As the story draws to a close, we find some answers about Chase’s life that change everything we thought we knew. We find hints of a darkness that could push him even further over the edge. This is the ideal of a series; resolve the major questions, but leave enough hanging that readers will want to follow you onto the next novel.

The Cold Spot is a gripping and powerful novel from an author who makes fans out of almost everyone who reads his work. The prose hums with a visceral energy that’ll keep you turning those pages. I finished it fast, thought about it for days afterwards. And really, there’s no better recommendation than simply: read this book. But be warned: once you hit that last page, you’ll be dying to read 2009’s The Coldest Mile.

WHAT BURNS WITHIN by Sandra Ruttan

Dorchester Books, 2008, 978-0843960747

When you think of Hardboiled, you probably don’t think of Vancouver. Canada never seems – to us outsiders at any rate – like a crimewave kind of country. But if there’s an author determined to buck the trend, its Sandra Ruttan. While her debut novel, Suspicious Circumstances was set in the US, Ruttan now moves the action north to her homeland, with gripping results. A missing child and a serial aronist would give give most cops nightmares. But for three Vancouver detectives, mere nightmares might seem a picnic compared to what they’ll be facing as they attempt to bring justice to the streets of their city.

What Burns Within marks the first of a sequence of novels set among the Vancouver police department, focussing specifically on three officers whose lives and cases are about to become seriously twisted. The focus is – befitting Ruttan’s strengths – on character and a great deal of effort has gone into ensuring the cast of What Burns Within live and breathe beyond the page. As is always the case, some people stick with you more than others. Here, its Detective Ashlyn Hart who seems to steal the show. Perhaps in part because she has some of the most difficult choices to make, but she emerges as the standout of the central trio of characters by evoking a genuine sense of empathy with the reader.

But while Ruttan is a natural for sketching tough and believable characters, she doesn’t allow her writing to rest on that alone. Anyone writing procedure has to ensure that the reader is convinced by the investigation, and its here that Ruttan’s smart approach shines. Subtle touches add authenticity to proceedings. Little things, such as the way she refuses to let her cop protagonists into a burned out building, something that some authors would be tempted to fudge for the sake of “poetic licence”. But Ruttan works hard to find unique ways to overcome these problems. One particular scene involving Lt Hart, a bucket lift and one heckuva scary drop emerges as particularly memorable.

The plot itself is often heartwrenching. Placing a child at the centre of a story is often a cheap way of tugging at the heartstrings, but Ruttan manages to mix in the emotional with the realistic, a ploy immediately brought into play with the opening scene that sees a girl losing her younger brother at a fairground. The scene plays with a kind of realistic childhood – not too cute, not too cynical – and there’s a feeling of deep unease by the end of the scene that is paid off in spades as the book progresses. Ruttan plays about with innocence and guilt in unexpected ways, and nuances even her young cast in such a way that the children are far more than mere ciphers or metaphors in the way many writers would use them.

It’s rare that a writer can combine character and procedural effectively, but Ruttan manages to create an emotionally invested thriller that also feels grounded in real – if somewhat dramatic – policework. The attention to detail helps add weight to the fictional world Ruttan has created. And while there are certain near obligatory investigative scenes included, the details and the characters move them beyond standard set pieces. In fact, Ruttan offers a kind of unpredictability that is rare in standard procedurals. While heroes are often complex characters, it is rare that we think they might not solve the case or save the day. Here, Ruttan manages to manipulate her audience into a kind of uncertainty over how events might turn out, and in doing so creates an air of realism that solidifies the novel and its world.

It helps that Ruttan’s smooth style – far more confident here than in her debut – flows particularly well, creating the kind rhythm that grips the reader and keeps them flipping those pages. Pace and style count for a lot, and What Burns Within has both in spades.

Ruttan combines devilishly clever plots with genuinely empathic characters. What Burns Within is a taught, confidently told character-led thriller, with Ruttan’s natural style shining through. And when you turn that last page, you’ll be itching for more from not simply the author herself, but the intriguing cast… who are begging for further exploration, and are slated to return in the second novel, The Frailty of Flesh.

Russel D McLean for, 29/05/08

Found on the internet 29/05/08

Tony Black's excellent debut novel, Paying For It has its own trailer which we ripped from youtube for your viewing pleasure.

A review is coming soon.

A Double Dose of Stuart MacBride

Sawbones by Stuart MacBride, Barrington Stoke, £5.99, 978-1842995297, July 2008
Flesh House by Stuart MacBride, HarperCollins, £12,99, 978-0007244546, May 2008

As much as we love series characters here at Crime Scene Scotland, it’s always nice to see an author taking a break. Even one akin to a weekend getaway such as Stuart MacBride’s novella, Sawbones.

Like Allan Guthrie’s Kill Clock before it, Sawbones is a book written for “emerging readers”. This entails a set of guidelines about the language and style used in the book, but the story itself must be engaging to an adult audience.

And Macbride knows about writing for adults.

Moving from his usual stomping grounds of Aberdeen and out into the wilds of America, MacBride seems to be relishing the opportunity to truly let himself go. The sheer joy of throwing out the “McRae” rulebook is evident from the opening pages where we’re right in the head of a mafia thug about to kill a cop. But, see, he’s got his reasons. They’re out looking for the boss’s daughter. Who’s been abducted. By a serial killer.

Looking for nice guys in this novella?

They’re few and far between.

Which is what gives the book its appeal. While Stuart rarely makes his Grampian Police into perfect heroes, he has rarely been allowed to let himself go so completely as here. There is a core of – somewhat twisted – morality to the two goons out on the road, and the killer himself… well, you ain’t finding no sympathy here. Sure, he’s a little bit of the loony-tunes cliché, but as ever MacBride is having fun playing with archetypes and the killer is recognisably an archetype – with his bible bashing and woman-hating – but still very chilling indeed. But these are characters with the kind of screwed morality that makes them truly fascinating. And the protagonists are decidedly anti-heroes in the best possible sense of the word.

But it’s the pacing that works here, and with brevity being the soul of wit, MacBride’s lean and muscular novella doesn’t give the reader time to breathe. The pages turn fast and easy, and while the storytelling is relatively straightforward, MacBride never panders to his audience, creating a taut and terrifying tale that roars across the dusty highways of the US in a blood-soaked Winnebago.

And with his wanderlust somewhat satisfied, it means that MacBride can then return – with batteries recharged – to his familiar homeground of Aberdeen. Yes, we’re back with DS McRae and, yes, Grampian police are – despite the warnings from DI Steele – most definitely at home to Mr Fuck Up.

It’s the sheer energy of his work that makes MacBride’s homegrown procedurals shine. If were in any doubt before, then Broken Skin confirmed that the world of McRae and co is a hyper-realised one, where a grim and black humour permeates near every sentence.

And with Flesh House, the humour is grim indeed.

More than any ever MacBride novel before it, the violence here is fairly explicit. Its been enough to turn some early readers vegetarian, but MacBride manages the fairly neat trick of offsetting the violence with gallows humour while never cheapening the loss of life.

In MacBride’s world, almost a decade earlier, Aberdeen was plagued by a killer known simple as “The Flesher”. A man who ate human flesh, slaughtered people like farm animals. And was finally arrested by Grampian Police. But now he’s out on bail… and the killing’s started again.

There’s something very chilling about MacBride’s latest novel, and the tension is ratcheted up superbly with a number of subtle red herrings laid in place. But the crime itself is not what impresses itself upon the reader; rather it’s the movement of the characters in MacBride’s world. With Steele given her chance to shine in Broken Skin, this time we see a whole new side to sweetie-munching DI Insch, who manages to both repel and engage the reader within the space of a single sentence. Its hard to say much without giving the game away, but MacBride is savvy enough to throw life-changing events at his characters without pressing a red reset button at the end of the tale, something that happens all too often in series fiction.

If there’s anything wrong, its that Logan McRae himself gets short shrift, with some intriguing personal developments getting lip service, but barely making inroads to the plot. Of course, even in a book this size, some concessions must be made, but the relationship between McRae and Jackie Watson which had a dramatic shift at the end of Broken Skin seems to be pushed into the background when it seems like some very interesting developments may have taken place.

But, what’s important is that Flesh House moves fast and furious – surprisingly so for such a hefty novel – and is genuinely engrossing, replete with moments of gallows humour that relieve the intensity of some scenes. This is a novel that doesn’t let up from the word go, and its almost surprising that MacBride can retain that incredible pace through the novel. Perhaps because, even if he is working within the McRae rulebook, he’s still finding ways to try and subvert the traditions he’s writing in. There are shifts towards the horror genre as one character breaks down almost entirely, and MacBride shows that despite his occasional broad strokes – the early characterisation of Insch in books one and two is a fine example – he can do very a very convincing and unnerving psychological portrait of his cast, and he seems to be at his very best when he puts the characters right at the very limits of their endurance. Witness not just Insch here, but also a character who finds herself at the very heart (if you’ll pardon what could be construed as a pun) of The Flesher’s scheme.

MacBride has, in four books, established himself a writer with a style and voice that distinguish him from the herd. His books are procedurals in form, but he manages to give them an edge that pulls in those readers who would usually be reluctant to read novels given that label. It’s the Scots humour, the sheer ballsiness of his approach to the genre and the fact that he somehow gives these large novels a momentum that propels the reader through the twists and turns without once giving them pause for breath.

If you haven’t read MacBride, we say: go and read him. Today. But, if you’re unprepared for that Aberdeen weather, we might just recommend an umberella.

Small disclaimer: eagle eyed and cynical readers will notice Russel D McLean’s name appear briefly in Flesh House. This was a fact unknown to the reviewer before he started reading and while he is always immensely flattered by such things, it does not prevent him from approaching the novel with his usual steely intensity.

Russel D McLean for, 29/05/08

The books we missed: 2007

As ever, 2007 was a year where we ended up playing Catch Up and missed out on some reviews we wished we’d got round to sooner. Here’s our selection of novels we wish we hadn’t missed reviewing in 2007:

When One Man Dies by Dave White, Three Rivers Press, 978-0307382788, $13.95

Jackson Donne is an ex cop, looking for the quiet life, spending time as a PI in New Jersey. He doesn’t expect to be there when a drinking buddy gets smashed in a hit and run, and he sure doesn’t expect the chaos that ensues when he decides to get involved.

Dave White may be a newcomer to the novel format, but he’s hardly a new voice to those who follow the genre closely. His short stories have been nominated for several awards and won at least one of them. So it’s a treat to see him move onto the novel form with this brisk, complex and entertaining debut.

White respects the traditions of the PI genre while simultaneously adding a modern thriller twist to proceedings. There’s an element of the old-school PI writers in White’s voice, a nod to those who have gone before. But White wisely tries not to overdo this and his voice owes as much (perhaps moreso) to writers like Michael Connelly and Jeffrey Deaver as it does to past masters such as Ross McDonald and Robert B Parker. It’s a mixture of the wise-ass and the everyman that helps keep the reader on Jackson’s side, creating a protagonist who could easily grow to become a fan-favourite.

Indeed, its character that sticks in mind here. Having explored Jackson Donne in previous short stories, White knows this character well enough to keep the reader involved and intrigued by his narration. And with Donne’s past life increasingly intruding on the present, his character evolves as the novel progresses. Donne looks like he could shape up to be an intriguingly complex protagonist over the course of a proposed series; indeed the second novel is due out in the next few months.

White manages to clearly and effectively delineate his twin point of view characters highlighting contrasts and similarities effectively. Of course, the narrative switch from first to third person – alternating as it does between Jackson and his possibly sociopathic ex-partner – is still occasionally jarring, despite the fact that both Jackson and his nemesis (who will, no doubt, continue to deteriorate as the series progresses) are equally intriguing characters. The flow in Jackson’s narration works better than the third person technique in the second narrative, perhaps because White is more accustomed to Jackson’s voice.

When One Man Dies is a damn fine read, a hell of a debut with a heart and soul that bodes very well indeed for future instalments in the series, and more importantly for White’s versatility as an author. It is a welcome addition to the reawakening (if it was ever asleep in the first place) PI genre (that’s two very promising series from ’07, now, beginning with Sean Chercover’s first Ray Dudgeon novel and continuing here) and a thriller that’s set to grab the attention of fans of Robert B Parker, Lawrence Block and Dennis Lehane.

Baby Sharks Beaumont Blues by Robert Fate, Capital Crime Press, 978-0977627622, $14.95

Robert Fate’s second entry in his Baby Shark series picks off where Baby Shark left off, with Kirsten Van Dijk settling firmly into her new role as a PI in 1950’s America. It’s a bold move setting a female protagonist in that era of America’s past, particularly one so young.

But it’s a move that this reviewer feels isn’t properly explored in either of the first two BabyShark novels, which is a shame because it would give the novels a new and different kind of edge. Robert Fate is a strong writer and his characterisation works well, but what is missing – and possibly required – from this series to push it over from good read to fantastic is a stronger sense of place and time.

James Ellroy wrote of noir being “history and politics” and its something this reviewer subscribes to strongly in the case of any historical novel. The weakness of the Baby Shark series that Fate has the opportunity to explore a hardboiled 1950’s setting through a female protagonist, but fails to properly use this in a dramatic sense. There is very little, aside from a few cultural references – the lack of modern technology and the gentlemanly courtship of local cop Lee – that truly marks the era throughout both Baby Shark and Baby Shark’s Beaumont Blues.

Which sounds like a big gripe, but Fate makes up for it all with an extremely strong narrative drive, a compelling voice and an intriguing set of characters placed at the forefront of the novel. Kirsten herself, being our point of view character, is a resiliently moral character who isn’t afraid to break a few heads. Again, slightly odd for a 1950’s setting, but with her need for revenge being set up in Baby Shark, by now you’re ready just to fly with it, to see her take on the bad guys. Like Kirsten’s PI mentor, Otis, there’s something pleasingly simple and old fashioned about the series with its strongly delineated characters, a definite moral core (although the good guys can walk in the shadows, there is no question of their ultimate goodness in a world which could rot them through) and a straight-ahead narrative that showcases Fate’s background in making movies. There is a very filmic sense of pacing, designed to keep you turning pages. And it works.

Ultimately, Baby Shark’s Beaumont Blues is a fast paced thriller with a kick-ass protagonist. I would hope that future instalments might explore the period in more detail, but for a damn fine read, Fate delivers the goods, with strong character work and a fast paced narrative perfectly befitting his heroine.

Heroes often Fail By Frank Zafiro Aisling Press, 978-1934677162

The second novel in Zafiro’s River City series focuses on a missing girl and the attempts by cops to find her. An ex cop himself, we’ve already noted that Zafiro has a good handle on investigative techniques and as he finds his feet with this second novel, his world of cops begins to feel more grounded and believable.

The case itself is intriguing enough, a way of holding together Zafiro’s otherwise disparate cast, although there is still a feeling that perhaps the pages are still a little overcrowded with cop characters vying for attention and sympathy and as such there are no standouts, which does to depersonalise the affair just a little. Although it is clear that characters like Detective Kopriva are itching to take centre stage. That is, if he’s around any more after the climactic – and, dramatically speaking, rather risky – events that spark the conclusion of Heroes Often Fail.

Its hard to explain the ending of Heroes often Fail without going into spoiler territory, and a large part of what makes the ending work is the fact that it is as surprising as it is inevitable. It is an everyday sense of tragedy that marks Zafiro’s background as an ex-cop; The Job is a struggle against odds that can often seem utterly

The missing girl scenario, being big and far-reaching in an emotional sense, is more important here to the reader – and therefore more compelling – than the stick up artist who plagued the cops during the first novel. There is less of a feeling of dissociation between various characters and their goals; everyone is united in what might be a hopeless cause – finding this girl alive. This lends the novel a greater weight, and helps marks out Kopriva as the character to watch. Zafiro uses him as an anchor for the frustration the police must feel in a case that demands emotional attachment and that distracts from an ordered, levelled form of investigation.

However, some of this emotional resonance feels as though it is being held back by the decision to play out the girl’s abduction – from her point of view – alongside the police investigation. Although some of these sequences are undeniably powerful – with implication rather than explication showing us the terrible nature of this crime – they ultimately water down the tension for the reader – we are aware of where the girl is and what is happening to her – and finally dilute the emotional pay off of the cop’s investigation when we are aware of what has happened long before they discover the truth.
We're still waiting for Zafiro's voice to start singing, to truly separate itself from other procedurals, but there is a great deal of promise and here we can see Zafiro stretching himself further as a writer, although there is a sense he is still holding back, focussing too much on writing rather than letting his voice sing out loud from the page. But his confidence and versatility is growing, and there are moments where the novel takes off, especially as the climax roars into view.

Heroes Often Fail rousingly trumps Under a Raging Moon; a solid, effective and occasionally affecting novel from a writer who knows not only the job, but the gruelling toll certain cases can take on the victims and those charged with upholding law and order.

On The Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith, St Martin’s Minotaur, 978-0312372880, $12.95

Hockensmith strikes gold again with his second tale featuring the amiable (and often amazing) Amingleyer brothers, Big Red and Old Red, who fancy themselves as somewhat of a western Holmes and Watson. On The Wrong Track is a blistering adventure for the brothers who find themselves charged with protecting the trains that run across the old west and in the midst of a dangerous predicament when they tangle with bandits and, even worse, in what for me is one of the defining sequences of the novel, a deadly African snake.

What strikes home most with Hockensmith’s work is the extremely powerful narrative voice. You can hear Old Red clear as a bell narrating in a downright friendly manner as he imparts on the often alarming matter of his brother’s deducifyin’ business. Yeah, it may be that Hockensmith fella’s name on the front, and he may have tidied up the narrative somewhat, but this is the work of Otto Aminglmeyer through and through.

So what with the voice and the sheer joyful nature of the enterprise, this is a book that can most definitely be described as a romp. But don’t be fooled by any of it because the real trick lies in the very tone of the tale. Sure, there are laughs to be had, but the reader is never laughing at the characters so much as the situations they find themselves in. The boys may get in some stupid situations, but they themselves are never actually stupid. Far from it, they come out of the affair with dignity intact and that’s what makes this series so darn intriguing and addictive, the fact that the characters are so deeply drawn in a series that could have been all about the surface elements and little else.

On The Wrong Track is one of the most original and enjoyable novels of 2007. It plays off a premise that could be one note, creating an unexpectedly rich and fascinating narrative from something that, in the wrong hands, could have quickly become a stale joke. Hockensmith is a talented editor for Otto Aminglmeyer’s fascinating tales of the Old West, and together they have created one of the most quirky, original, amusing, surprisingly human and – most importantly – damnably entertaining new crime series of the past few years.

Russel D McLean for, 29/05/08

Found on the Internet 29/05/08

Mark Billingham's DEATH MESSAGE was the last Thorne novel, while Billingham takes a break for a superb standalone IN THE DARK (we hope to have a review later in the year, but we've already read it and it is excellent). Here's a trailer to celebrate the release of DEATH MESSAGE in paperback....