Tuesday, June 01, 2010

2010 summer roundup

Yes, its been a hiatus for a while here at Crime Scene Scotland, but we're back with a heaping helping of reviews to let you know what we've been reading these last few months. We've selected and distilled some of our favourites to let you know what's been happening in the big, bad world of crime fiction during the first half of 2010.

JOHNNY PORNO by Charlie Stella, Stark House Books, 978-1933586298

Stella’s latest novel is a blazing, wonderful evocation of 1970’s America. Reminiscent of the works of George V Higgins – perhaps more so than any of Stella’s previous works – Johnny Porno is an authentic, captivating novel that retains Stella’s trademark emphasis on dialogue, married with a gritty style that feels very much of the period he’s writing about. This is a novel that could have been contemporaneous, given its feel and its style. And that is a huge compliment to Stella, who shows a real feel for the period without ever laying infodump on the audience or reminding constantly that this work is historical.

Johnny Porno focuses on John Albano, recently divorced, recently laid off, looking for a bit of extra cash to help support his kid. He finds the cash in transporting film reels for the mob, whose latest scam involves screenings of recently banned porno, Deep Throat. Of course, John’s in way over his head and before long, there’s a steaming pile of trouble landing on his doorstep.

Stella’s novel is intricately plotted, with a cast of fully realised characters and a sly humour that runs just beneath the surface but never undercuts the reality of his writing. Johnny Porno is Stella’s seventh novel, and its his most mature and most convincing yet. If you haven’t discovered Stella yet (and if you haven't, what's your excuse?) you need to start, now.

FLORIDA GOTHIC STORIES by Vicki Hendricks, Kitsune Books, 978-0981949536

Single author short story collections can often be a mixed bag, but Hendricks is a writer who has truly captured the form and writes with an ease and a grace that reminds you of the true power the short story can have over a reader.

Her stories, which run the gamut from the dream-like to the horrifyingly, convincingly real are told with such conviction that the reader sometimes finds themselves uncertain about their own reality. Her subjects are often bizarre and outlandish – witness the first story in the collection where the object of our narrators affections turns out to be a dolphin – but imbued with a recognisable and desperate humanity that speaks to the Gothic themes and psycho-sexual natures of much of her narrative. These are not freak shows for our amusement, but twisted and still recognisable reflections on humanity at its worst and its best.

Florida Gothic stories is an entrancing, incredible collection from a powerfully talented author. I came to Hendricks through her novels, but her short stories as evidenced here are every bit as powerful and unsettling as her longer works. Particular standouts include the dreamlike Stormy, Mon Amour, the sexually charged (even if the punchline seems perhaps a little telegraphed), ReBecca and the surreally unsettling Cold Blooded Lovers.

DRINK THE TEA by Thomas Kaufmann, St Martin's, 978-0312607302

Kaufmann’s debut PI novel is a contemporary DC-based mystery that feels, in its way, an homage to the classic PI model. Willis Gidney, while a product of the modern age, could have easily slotted into Matt Scudder’s world or been a contemporary of Archer. Hell, with his wisecracking narrative he could easily have stood side by side with Marlowe.

But his stomping ground is DC, and while he may have much in common with classic PI archetypes, one slowly starts to wonder how much of that is an act given Gidney’s chequered and intriguing past as a delinquent in the Capital. This tension between past and present provides a great deal of colour to the character, allowing him some depth and tension that might have been missing in the hands of a lesser writer.

In Drink the Tea, Gidney finds himself hired to find a jazz musicians daughter, but the case goes deeper than anyone ever expected. It’s a complex case, and one couldn’t ask for a better guide than Gidney, even if some of his wisecracking prose does seem laid on a little thick at times.

With a healthy respect for the past, and an eye on the future, Kaufmann’s debut is a strong, complex novel with a protagonist who is far more than the homage he at first appears to be. It’s the start of a promising series, and one worth your time checking out.

THE HOLY THIEF by William Ryan 978-0230742734

Set in Stalin’s Russia, William Ryan’s The Holy Thief is inevitably going to be compared to the block-busting Child 44. But Ryan’s solid, assured debut novel deserves to stand on its own; an intriguing mix of political and social upheaval wrapped around the construct of a serial-killer thriller. This second half, while well executed, is perhaps the least interesting, but provides a solid framework for Ryan’s well-researched exploration of Soviet Society in the 1930’s. It helps, too, that the protagonist - Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev – is relatable, and a strong enough character to carry the novel.

With an evocative and authoritative tone, an intriguing background and a conflicted, intriguing central; character, The Holy Thief is a strong and evocative debut from an author who deserves your attention, even if you’re not usually swayed by historical thrillers.

THE WHISPERERS by John Connolly, John Murray, 978-0340993507

Here at Crime Scene Scotland, we’re huge fans of Connolly’s healthy mix of hardboiled and paranormal, and have been waiting for The Whisperers since the game-changing end of the last Parker novel, The Lovers.

With the return of The Collector, and a convincing descent into veteran combat stresses as Charlie finds himself involved with soldiers recently returned from the middle east conflicts, this is one of the most affecting and disturbing Parker novels yet. The real world issues are handled beautifully and respectfully, and the now-solid supernatural elements are handled with a rare grace and restraint that leaves the reader chilled and unsettled by the end of the narrative. Particularly because, as ever with Connolly, the moral ambiguities leave one wondering whether the real horrors aren’t more human in their genesis than one might like to believe. There may be evil in Parker’s universe, but it comes as much from humans as it does from those mysterious and often only glimpsed exterior forces.

It also helps that Connolly has command over his prose, with a strong, beautiful voice that has become stronger with each passing novel, now effortlessly demanding and deserving the reader’s attention.

Connolly is one of the most unique thriller writers currently working, and The Whisperers continues to cement his unique brand of literary supernatural thriller. Simply put, Connolly is an author you have to read, and The Whisperers shows him at his finest.

KILLER by Dave Zelsterman, Serpent's Tail, 9781846686443

Leonard March, a former hitman, is out of jail and working as a janitor. But a past like his never truly goes away, and one vitruous act brings up memories and connections from his old life.

Zelsterman, along with Jason Starr, is one of the most talented chroniclers of the sociopathic mind currently working. His characters – mobsters, crooked cops, psychopathic hitmen – are masters of self-delusion and often makers of their own downfall. This short, sharp blast of a novel continues Zeltserman’s fearless exploration of criminal psychopathy with a strong narrative, a unique voice and a willingness to present the reader with protagonists who may not be inspirational or necessarily sympathetic, but are endlessly complex, fascinating and terrifying.

DARK BLOOD by Stuart MacBride, HarperCollins, 978-0007244607

From a promising debut through to being one of the most fascinating, dependable and darkly amusing Scottish crime writers of the moment, MacBride continues to subvert the traditional British Procedural with his latest entry in the Logan McRae series which finds a controversial criminal moving to Aberdeen, our normally stoic DS finally cracking under the stresses of the job, and a complex web of criminal activity giving the staff at FHQ a headache the suze of the city itself.

One of the things that MacBride has done more and more as the series has expanded is given the Grampian Police Force a very ensemble feel, so that while McRae may be the reader’s constant, the supporting cast are always coming to the fore, providing their own spin on events and frequently (as in the case of the wonderfully foul-mouthed DI Steel) stealing the show.

The humour is salty, sometimes crude, but always funny and very real. In reaction to the horrors of their job, MacBride’s CID feel very real in their gallows and occasionally juvenile senses of humour. We can laugh along with their joking in the offices, but when we see them out on the field, we know that they take their jobs very seriously indeed, and MacBride lets us see the cracks and strains that occur between the banter and the horror with a sometimes unexpected subtlety that creeps up on the reader. I’ve heard some people state that comedy is close to tragedy, and with MacBride the two often cross over quite beautifully with the sobering effect of making you laugh one minute and lose your breath with empathy the next.

Dark Blood is a violent, sometimes crude, often darkly amusing procedural from a hugely talented thriller writer whose work improves with each novel, who is always looking for new ways to surprise his readership. If you haven’t discovered MacBride yet, we recommend you start right now.

CAPTURED by Neil Cross (pb edition, Aug 2010) 978-1847394132

I admit I wasn’t hugely taken with Cross’s previous novel, Burial. While well-written and intriguing, the prose felt a little too pared back, and some of the characters perhaps missing in motivation. Here, in Captured, Cross hits the ground with all cylinders firing as this lean, stark novel tells the tale of Kenny, a man with a brain tumour, trying to find a girl who showed him some kindness while he was at school and discovering that she has recently gone missing.

His attempts to locate her start as honourable and quickly descend into a nightmare, made all the more unnerving by the fact that we, the audience, are unsure how much of what we learn is due to Kenny’s tumour causing him to act or think unpredictably. It’s a tense ride, well-suited to Cross’s minimalist style, and raises questions about moral responsibility and culpability that have no easy answers. Captured is not always a comfortable read but it is fascinating, terrifying and gripping with a resolution that will haunt you for a long time to come.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 01/06/10