Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Review - ASSUME NOTHING by Gar Anthony Haywood

ASSUME NOTHING by Gar Anthony Haywood, Severn House, 9781847513793

One of my favourite characters in crime fiction is not a detective or even remotely a hero. Rather he is Richard Stark’s anti-hero, Parker. The sheer determination and absolute focus of the character are reflected in the spare, powerful prose style of its author.

So from the word go, I was inclined to adore this latest novel from the supremely talented Gar Anthony Haywood (YOU CAN DIE TRYING). Its central character, Joe Reddick, shares much in common with Parker. He’s focussed. Determined. Able to improvise. And utterly ruthless. And again, this is reflected by Haywood’s lean, muscular narration. But what makes Reddick more than just a Parker clone, is the fact that while Parker is driven by money and challenge, Reddick is driven by a more primal instinct – the urge to protect his family.

Reddick is an ex-cop with anger management issues. Having seen his family slaughtered almost a decade earlier, he is trying to rebuild his life, despite his frequently inappropriate responses to explosive situations as seen early in the novel where he almost kills a couple of punks causing trouble in a fast food outlet. But he’s grounded by Dana and her son, his new family, his new reason for living. They are what give him hope for the future and allow him to carry on without giving in completely to the psychopathic rage that boils inside him.

As with all good crime novels, what happens next has the organic feel of “shit happens”. Like Elmore Leonard, Haywood spends a while setting up seemingly disparate threads and allowing characters to collide in ways that set up the action to come. Its an accident that puts Reddick in the path of some would-be bad guys trying to dispose of a body. And its those guys who make the mistake of thinking that the best way to make sure Reddick doesn’t talk to the police is to threaten his new family.

From this point on, the novel explodes. The action unfolds quick and fierce, and Reddick unleashes that righteous anger that’s been inside him the whole time. Like Parker, though, he has a code and tries his damndest to stick to it even when the odds dictate he should maybe do otherwise. Unlike Parker, though, this code has a simple moral base and allows the reader to truly get on side with Reddick despite some of the terrible things he does. And it also allows Haywood to play with ideas of ethics and morality in a way many crime novels shy away from. The question of who the bad guy is comes into play as the cops become interested in why bodies are piling up and start to piece together the disparate pieces of the puzzle that the reader already knows. And its a credit to Haywood that while Reddick is an incredible creation, he allows the supporting cast room to breathe. In particular, the trio of "bad guys" that Reddick pursues are painted not as simple schm,ucks or cackling villains, but as ordinary guys who made some bad, bad decisions. This only adds to the novel's sense of realism and increases the tension of the moral conumdrum at the heart of this work. It also means that when they collide with Reddick, the results are anything but predictable. Haywood's characters live and breathe in a way that means we can imagine they might be merely a street away.

Years ago, I read Haywood’s YOU CAN DIE TRYING and adored it. More recently his short story collection, LYRICS FOR THE BLUES confirmed that Haywood is a major talent. ASSUME NOTHING has brought me firmly on board as a fan of Haywood’s literate, engaging and uncompromising brand of crime fiction. You want my advice? If you haven’t read Haywood, you need to start now. Trust me, you’ll want to devour his entire back catalogue.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland 03/01/12