Thursday, 4 December 2014


Very pleasing freebie audio download featuring Bill Pronzini's Nameless detective. It runs for about 90 minutes and is ably narrated by Nick Sullivan who really nails Nameless's personality. Being a short story the character introduces himself more thoroughly than he does in his full length appearances. I'm sure many people discover great series by a chance encounters with stories like this. He compares himself to actor Richard Boone, which was probably a more useful comparison when this story first saw print in the early 80s. He admits to being a bit of a slob. 'To hell with health clubs and to hell with my belly.' he says... or words to that effect.
For fans of the series the continuity places Booktaker a short time after Hoodwink. Nameless is in the happy period of his relationship with Kerry Wade, some time before Scattershot blew all the happiness to the wind. The story revolves around some mystery thefts at a store dealing in rare books. Nameless is hired by the baffled owner to discover the thief. It's just great to be in the company of one of my favourite private eyes doing everything that he loves best; solving puzzling crimes, reading his beloved pulp mags, eating, drinking cold beer and snuggling with Kerry in front of a roaring fire.

Sunday, 23 November 2014


After the events of Scattershot, Nameless and his best bud Lieutenant Eberhardt are soaking their misery in beer. Eberhardt is stewing in bitterness following having his wife walk out on him and Nameless has lost both P.I license and girlfriend Kerry Wade. Misery loves company they say and both men feel they're perched on the lowest step that life can offer. But when the doorbell heralds a hail of bullets they find out the hard way that there's always a lower step.
Nameless wakes up in hospital with a serious mad on, vowing to track down the oriental shooter and take him down... take him right down to Chinatown. 
It's great to be back in the company of our Nameless investigator,, though he's not really completely the man we've followed for eight books or so. He wants payback. But he's no Charles Bronson. Pronzini doesn't really commit to working the theme of the destructive nature of blindly seeking vengeance. The more interesting aspects of the story are his convalescent relationship with Kerry and how he reacts to the discovery that Eberhardt has secrets.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan

Enola Holmes Mystery The Fourth. And considering how much time the book devotes to our dear hoyden's desires to find a friend, soul-mate or mother, there is plenty of time for a right load of swashbuckling and derring-do. She doesn't quite swing from the chandeliers but only because there wasn't one to her convenience. She really should be sliding down those bannisters on the cover - no really. Beyond the bannister surfing and the rope swinging this one really benefits from a proper generous slice of the page count going to her more favoured brother. In the comic books this sort of instalment would be called a 'Team-Up'. But first,before they can take on the villains of the piece, in true comic-book tradition they must FIGHT!!!! There is certainly a good sizzle to the narrative when the two are on the same page; Enola confused by conflicting instincts and emotions and Sherlock just being himself . With such short books it also helps that this one picks up on a previous book (the second) including already established characters like Lady Cecily with whom Enola yearns to one day go sketching with. Fun one.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Lady, Lady, I Did It!

McBain delivers a scorcher for the series, emphatically leaving the last book's city fable indulgences behind. This one is 87th Precinct to the core; short, hard hitting and full of character.
A multiple shooting at a book store has every cop in the precinct searching for the killer as one of the fallen belongs to one of their own. Carella and Meyer lead the investigation as they delve into the backgrounds of all of the victims looking for a lead. Kling, Wilis and Brown aid with the leg work.
Written at the start of the 1960s, long before any State legalised abortion, McBain drags the thorny subject into the light as various closets are emptied of their skeletons.
Loss and grief are explored thoughtfully too, stripped of any histrionics, deepening the characters by shared familiar emotions.
The little linguistic puzzle set by one of the victim's deathbed words kept me busy for a good five seconds. But you can't really blame Carella and co for being distracted.   

Monday, 18 August 2014

See Them Die

The 13th book with 87th Precinct on the cover is a bit of a curate's egg. McBain is sometimes experimental with his writing and the   formula sometimes gets a bit bent out of shape but this one is barely recognisably part of the series. There are a few scenes, mainly in the squad room, that are pure 87th but for the most part McBain chooses to tell a morality fable from the street. I don't think it surprises me that this was written not long after West Side Story had exploded with nuclear impact on Broadway for the first time. Although the story kicks off with the chance meeting of three guys, all cut off from their roots, from different walks and stages of life, the story really only follows one of them. Zip is a young trouble maker who has moved to a new neighbourhood and having been bullied at his old one sets out to be top dog of his own little street gang.- The Latin Purples. He's sort of the very small cog by which the larger story turns. Unfortunately he's chosen a very bad role model in Pepe Miranda and so believes that the best way to make a reputation is by killing someone. He's gong to kill another young kid who was unlucky enough to say "Hello." to a girl that Zip likes.
Meanwhile, lest we forget who are heroes are, the cops have cornered Pepe in some apartments and lay siege. Lieutenant Pete Byrnes gets to dust off his megaphone and lead his troop of beat cops and bulls to winkle Pepe out and nobody on either side is looking to spare their bullets. Carella backs him up, but it's Frankie Fernandez, the precinct's only Puerto Rican bull and Andy Parker who are the main players on the law side of the tale. Parker is a cop who hits first and doesn't bother much listening to questions answered later. He's also racist as hell but doesn't understand why the objects of his racism are so touchy. With everything heating up at the height of summer it all makes for a boiling pot that's got too hot not to explode and the tough end of fate is going to decide who gets to walk away alive. Along with the sometimes preachy diatribe against racism McBain takes a hard look at fate and asks 'why can't things always turn out for the good?'.  I gave the book four stars for a story well told but if I was to score it as an 87th Precinct story I might only give it two or maybe three, the extra star only because it does have some pivotal plot action for some of the boys from the 87th.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Noir Chic: French Detective

Tight-Lipped is the fifth detective novel to feature Franck Guerin of the Brigade Criminelle from the pen of David Barrie. It's a good two years since I shared a few expressos with Franck and I was beginning to think I'd seen the last of him. But like all good detectives they always turn up when you aren't expecting them. In fact it's Franck who is rudely awakened in the middle of the night and whisked off to a location somewhere rural, without so much as a few moments to bolt back his ritual morning expresso. His old job has come back to haunt him as the DCRI (counter espionage/terrorism), led by his old boss the steely chain smoking Catherine Vautrin, try to close in on eco-terrorist Grabriel Agostini, an elusive character who doesn't flinch at murder to advance his ideals and whose escape four years ago at the infamous Corsican Incident resulted in Franck's forced career change. Agostini is nowhere to be seen but the scene of the tip-off is found to be occupied by famed intellectual Jean-Jacques Marsay, who it turns out is writing a book about the terrorist and his organisation. On returning to Paris Franck is called to a murder scene with Marsay's editor Virginie Desmoulins, lying in a pool of her own blood and tied to her bed.
As ever the investigation follows Franck's gathering of the threads that connect the victims and their potential killers. Franck isn't one for car chases or gratuitous action scenes, instead he meets for probing conversations in Paris' multitude of cafes, empty expresso cup already cooling at his elbow, as he seeks out the chinks in everyone's armour, collecting secrets and contradictions like ammunition for the fight.  Agostini has lurked in the background of several of Frank's investigations in the past but none so much as this one. Franck's search for Virginie's killer brings him into territory that Vautrin and her DCRI occupy, but with both parties believing that their own target takes precedence inter-departmental cooperation isn't to the fore. 
The intellectual world of Marsay, his voice and philosophies come across well, which isn't always the case when an author creates a character who is supposedly more intellectual than themselves. France treats its philosophers and big thinkers differently than many cultures, giving them status and veneration akin to celebrities elsewhere. It makes for an interesting background for the investigation with Marsay's notoriety overlapping his wife's profile in the French film industry as a respected actress and the inner workings of the publishing world behind Marsay's upcoming controversial book.
Barrie's plot is intricate enough to keep folk guessing until the 'pages remaining' grows thin. Though the clues are all there if you backtrack. Apart from Franck's official team working under the judicial eye of  Yves de Chaumont, he sometimes consults Sylvie Thomas on matters with a monetary factor, finance and big business being one of the detective's blind spots. And Sonia Delemazure, a model, usually turns up, sometimes with a troop. Think the antithesis of the Baker Street Irregulars with an access all areas pass to the high and the famous. She also has some of the lighter scenes with Franck as we learn the level of knowledge he has of bras and his proficiency at Pétanque (a type of Boules).
The strengths of the previous books are all there as usual; strong sense of place, good characterisation and intelligent plotting. Paris is brought alive throughout with the backstreets and nooks featuring just as much as the tourist traps.
Tight-Lipped is out in paperback in October 2014. If you pick up a copy fire up the expresso machine, and find a quiet spot but just remember.... don't try to keep up with Franck.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Monkey's Raincoat

I was unsure if I was going to like this one. A first look at Elvis Cole in chapter one, quipping his way through what should have been a standard private eye office/client opening ,he mainly comes across as highly random and off the charts rude. What kept me reading was being intrigued by Cole's mysteriously absent partner Joe Pike, or to give him his full title; that bastard Pike. While I waited for that sonofabitch Pike ( it takes a while) I started to become aware that Cole had more to him than being an annoying wise-ass. He's a complex character who likes to think of himself as 'thoughtful, smart and sensitive'. In reality he's highly reckless and suffers from a rampaging hero complex that douses failure in booze and plunges him in love or lust with a speed that Cotton Hawes would envy. It's a persona shaped by dealing with war (tours in Viet Nam) at an early age.
Written in the late 80s the book is a goldmine for nostalgia of that time, the script is riddled with all sorts of pop culture that will be familiar with people like me who grew up in the 70s and 80s. Cole has a bit of a nostalgia addiction, surrounding himself with favourite books, music and items from his youth that he employs as comfort props to his psyche.
The aforementioned Pike remains a voice on the phone until things start to get hot. He turns out to be a laconic Rambo type who thinks Clint Eastwood talks too much.
In the end I was very impressed with the book and will look forward to the further adventures of the chalk and cheese duo Cole and Pike. We'll see how the series goes.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Heckler

'She came in like a lady, that April.'
McBain follows the poetic line with a calm, hopeful beginning in this 12th visit to Isola. He brings an air of shy innocence to the intro chapter with the cool, pale personification of the early Spring month being a gentle lady that cheers the populace with her approach. But on with the mayhem.
Carella is trying to solve the case of a close range shotgun killing - the victim stripped down to his socks. Meyer Meyer investigates a spate of threatening calls. It's good to see Frankie Hernandez getting a fairer crack of the whip than his first appearance.
This one really is a corker, with a villain who towers above the usual brand of none to smart lawbreakers, a Moriarty figure, a master of probability and percentages, who flaunts his complex scheme, inspired by the Sherlock Holmes stories, one of which Detective Kling coincidentally reads in the squad room -  "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League".
 McBain's writing is great here with so much going on from the absurdly intricate caper to the captivating collection of characters that doesn't end with just the regulars. Speaking of regulars - where's Cotton Hawes got to? Not that I'm missing him at all. From the gentle beginning, through the tangled investigation, true suspenseful tension and climactic finale I've got to say this was one of the best so far.
My edition had a fascinating little afterword by McBain on the book and the series so far. Miss at your peril.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Hell is Empty

 When you open the show with some law enforcement types transporting a bunch of psycho killers across country in a van you pretty well know what's coming. One of those law enforcement types is my old buddy Sheriff Walt Longmire and the country is the foothills of the Big Horn mountains in Wyoming, alreaded well blanketed in winter's snow and there's more on the way. Deputy Saizarbitoria (Sancho) is working his way through a bunch of book lists provided by his friends and colleagues (the full set of lists is published at the back). Currently he's mired in the substantially weighty tome of Inferno. Before long the prisoners turn the tables and wreak havoc before high-tailing it into the mountains. Walt sets off in pursuit, with Dante's masterwork his most constant companion. Now at this stage I'd usually start grumbling about Johnson breaking the Longmire formula again by dropping the usual ensemble cast into their off stage limbo waiting for their curtain call at the epilogue but this one is really well done. Yeah it's pretty much a solo piece following Walt's pov, with a few cameos from a few familiar faces but it's far from being a cliched thriller despite the somewhat stock-plot opening. It's actually very well realised, fusing the themes and philosophical ideas of Dante's allegorical satire with Walt's relentless strivings to save the innocent, get up close and personal with his spirituality and basically come to terms with his own place in the world. It's a voyage of self discovery as much as a cops and bad guys chase through the snow. 
It works on both levels though. It's also a big plus that the chase up the mountainside actually takes place in a real place. There really is a Cloud Peak and it's just as Johnson describes.
In the previous book the author gave the readers what they wanted; a full ensemble, a light humourous tone and no damn flashbacks. Walt's propensity for getting a bit beaten up was duly sent up but in Hell is Empty Johnson takes things to a new level and it's no joke. But Walt's wry style of humour is still there. Walt wouldn't be Walt without it. 
I do wonder though how things would have turned out if Sancho had plumped for The Poems of Emily Dickinson.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady

Enola Holmes returns, hunted by day by the Great Detective and haunting London's befogged cobbles by night in her alter ego as the Sister of the Streets, doling out charity disguised as a nun. She maintains daytime alter egos as Miss Ivy Meshle, and Mrs Ragostin the young wife of the imaginary Doctor Ragostin - seeker of things lost. One of the first consultee's turns out to Doctor John Watson in connection with a missing girl. The story incorporates plenty of Victorian talking points regarding social issues for young readers to discuss or investigate further; social Darwinism, Marxism, emancipation. Mesmerism and some not fully developed theories about the dangers of correcting which hand the Lady Cecily uses and connections with multiple personality disorders aren't perhaps as clearly expounded as they could be. Beyond the social horror of poverty in Victorian England Enola cuts a rather lonely figure herself. She has few confidantes and those she has are handled with caution lest she give herself away to her brothers. Her skills with codes and cyphers almost surpass Sherlock and her sketching of caricatures help her along like early mug-shots. A much improved adventure that tries to be fun, establishing a fresh identity amongst so much obvious historical hardship.

Monday, 16 June 2014

A Century of Noir

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins team up to bring us 32 Noir stories from the last century. Collins makes it clear in his intro that the term 'Noir' wasn't the term he or Spillane were aiming for when they set out to put this book together. Tough guy fiction, hard-boiled crime and detective stories was the preferred line, though in the end the collection defers more to reputation than any strict adherence to genre. Most of the stories were born out of the shadowy literature churned out for a voracious post-war public hungry for dangerous thrills, tough guys and femme fatales but from the opening vignette by Chester Himes it soon becomes clear that many of the stories step out of the target genre's darkness in order to let the author's shine. The result is a collection of stories by folk who carved some sort of pulp noir niche for themselves without having to strictly draw from that niche.
Chandler and Hammett should headline a book like this with a story featuring Marlowe, Sam Spade or the Continental Op but neither could be included due to clearance problems. Some other notables get more of a crack at the whip than others with whole novellas being included like the ground breaking Race Williams detective from the 1920s. Many of the stories include the author's trump card detective to showcase their skills but there are also quite a few that take the literary side-step for something unexpected; Gil Brewer's The Gesture being a fine example of a short with a late perspective change that turns things completely on their head; or Fredric Brown's trick ending for Don't Look Behind You; or the balsy genealogist from Donald E. Westlake's Never Shake the Family Tree. Norbert Davis pitches in with an unlikely detective with Chill Blanes, backwoods superstition with Dorothy B. Hughes, chuckles at Lawrence block's animal cruelty psycho dealing it back. There is certainly a deal more fun being had here in a supposed Noir collection than really should be happening.
The editors both contribute, with a decent Nathan Heller effort from Collins, and an entirely forgettable piece of crud from Spillane. Great to see Bill Pronzini serving up another Nameless Detective story - fine work as always. Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone story make me open to reevaluating her skills after I dismissed the female detective's debut novella.  These sorts of collections are great jumping off spots into the darkness, with famous names aplenty but frustration lurks behind many of the names in the form of out of print or hard to locate series.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Give the Boys a Great Big Hand

It's always great to be back with the boys from the 87th Precinct even when McBain struggles to work a worthy plot line.Hapless beat cop Richard Genaro makes another grisly discovery in the form of a severed hand. McBain turns up the extreme weather (its raining constantly) while he scrambles to fit a story to the discarded appendage. Carella leads the investigation whilst Hawes attempts to charm the local Strippers. Kling adds support. Other than plot this one has Teddy and Carella moving into new digs with the newly born twins. The too brief inclusion of Frankie Hernandez as a Puerto Rican detective. And Carella resorts to violence in the squad room as local bad egg Detective Andy Parker crosses the racism line. It's far from the classic of the previous volume King's Ransom but still time well spent.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Fiver's Dream

Due to inevitable health issues this is probably the last year for me at my Bunker Hill abode. All that's holding me here now are a bunch of those invisible bureaucratic legal tangles we humans love to cast about ourselves. Anyhow it gives me a bit of time to say farewell to all the neighbours that have made the place such a fine retreat. Remember that Summer you came to stay for a few days - the garden never forgot, that's for sure. So good-bye buns. Keep on filling that hill with life and long may your afternoons be sunny and predator free. Keep a good eye, and twitch that nose, and always have one ear to the ground. Stay safe folks. I hope Fiver's dream never comes this way but I fear that one day they'll run out of green bits to paint white and even Bunker Hill will fall. Until then..... stop chewing your toes while I'm speechifying... bye buns.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Sherlock Holmes had a sister?

Having decided to hoard the latest escapades of Flavia De Luce for hopefully better days ahead I cast my nets and twitched my literary feelers seeking a palatable substitute. It's never been totally dismissed that Sherlock had a canonical sister. He mentions a possibly hypothetical sister several times in The Copper Beeches. The debates go on. It's been a while since I dipped my toes in the YA sea. I've had lots of fun in the past when I have dived in but these days there does seem to be rather more fish than sea. Enola is certainly no match for Flavia (she doesn't even give her bicycle a name for heaven's sake) and Nancy Springer's Victorian England doesn't convince as seamlessly as Pullman's Sally Lockhart books. The author does have great fun with various Victorian minutiae, most notably with Enola's clothing in her various disguises. Enola turns her lack of womanly curves to her advantage by taking advantage of all the vacant storage space with her 'improvised wearable baggage' compartments. The main push of the storyline is taken up by the disappearance of our girl's mother, who vanishes so completely even Sherlock is at a loss. Enola decides to track her down with the aid of her mother's cyphers and a skill for caricature sketching, as much to prove to her disparaging brothers her true cranial capacity. Boarding school and learning to be a proper lady certainly doesn't appeal so she stuffs her baggage compartments full of loot and survival items and sets out on her un-named bicycle in pursuit. It's a short read but entertaining with enough chuckles and even a few Holmsian tingles when Enola and Sherlock collide for me to come back looking for book 2.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Junkyard Dogs

The last two Walt Longmire books were both really disappointing. The series featuring the aging Sheriff seemed to be stalling with two books pretty much self sabotaged by Craig Johnson. At least I assume it was him and not the result of some very poor editorial advice probably connected to pacing. Both books were completely ruined by being told in flashback and featured only minimal appearances of the regular cast of characters. But Junkyard Dogs sees a welcome return of the old, slow burn style that hooked me in the first place. The humour is turned up a notch with Walt's tendency to get injured getting a bit of a sending up. All the cast are here, with only some of the minor characters left out. It all kicks off with an old guy getting dragged along on a tow rope for several miles by his nearest and dearest, waving at bystanders as he clatters by. Following on from a sub plot line begun several books ago, Walt's newest deputy is having psychological issues after getting severely injured in the line of duty and plans to quit. Walt has other ideas. Dog gets to do his heroic hound thing again. Walt's on/off romance with feisty deputy Vic is mostly off. Henry does his tracking thing. And it's cold and the snow is coming in again. And it's all so very cosy and as far as I'm concerned.... just what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes

This was probably the first anthology of Sherlock Holmes pastiches that I ever read back in the dim and murky past when dinosaurs walked the Earth in mortal terror of Doug McClure. Basil Rathbone was still my main source of Holmes with most of Conan Doyle senior's stories still not having a place on my bookshelves. So now that all those brilliant works by dear Arthur are all indelible features of my memory, perhaps it's time I revisited his son's attempts to recreate his father's style with the help of his dad's old desk and of collaborator John Dickson Carr. Only the first two are full on collaborations with perhaps one of them, The Seven Clocks, being the best story in the collection. It's got a suitably bizarre fellow in it who goes in for some full on random clock smashing but it's the spot on atmosphere that makes the tale. The other being the rather poor The Gold Hunter. Carr's The Wax Gamblers is like one of those old school friends you bump into every five years or so, turning up in various anthologies. It has a very humorous tone and features boxing, an injured Holmes and Watson getting the butt of the jokes but saving the day anyway. Good story. Unfortunately Carr steps over the line too much in the farcical Highgate Miracle. Carr has almost no involvement in the very forgettable Black Baronet but must surely have loaned Conan Doyle some expertise to craft The Sealed Room. Carr is regarded as one of the greatest to pen the sub-genre of the locked room and one of his stories was voted the all time best by his peers. Conan Doyle's father also penned a story of the same name. What results is also quite a good story and another that pops up from time to time.
From here on in Conan Doyle junior is left to his own devices as illness took a toll on Carr. What follows are six very derivative stories, mostly dull, with many of the right elements but no finished shine. The pick of them is The Debtford Horror, deeply derivative of The Speckled Band, but quite atmospheric with a nice frisson of creepiness to accompany one of the most creative methods of bumping off unwanted family members ever seen. Though thanks to Conan Doyle senior for sewing the seed by first mentioning in Black Peter the arrest of Wilson the notorious canary-trainer. Although Wilson is not arrested in the story Conan Doyle junior lays the blame at Watson's feet calling it 'a typical Watson error.' Holmes quite uncharacteristically spouts proverbs throughout. Fun though.
What always occurs to me after reading a Sherlock Holmes anthology, and the number is legion, is that no matter how closely the writers mimic Cona Doyle senior's style, or how many Holmsian elements are included, none of them come close to performing the alchemy that Arthur Conan Doyle did. In many ways the formula to the literary alchemy of the perfect Victorian Sherlock Holmes story is lost to time because no one has first hand experience of the Victorian era nor the acquaintance of the men the great detective was based upon.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Edwin of the Iron Shoes

I really wanted to give this one up at the half way stage. But there were a few reasons I wanted to finish it poking me along. One being the shortness of the thing, and it features an early female P.I., predating Sue Grafton's 1980s creation, but the main and most persistent pokey thing was the knowledge that Marcia Muller is married to Bill Pronzini, author of the superb Nameless Detective series. Muller's P.I. also haunts the same San Francisco streets and eventually the two will come together in a cross-over or two. But man it was hard work. The first two thirds of the book are basically our heroine, Sharon McCone, wading through a stock check of the contents of an antique shop that provided the location of a murder. Muller has a straight forward writing style, devoid of anything resembling poetic colour, that would grace the incident report for most insurance claim forms but does little to generate atmosphere. The less said about the hate-hate-love-hate proto-romance between McCone and the local cop, Greg Marcus, the better. Marcus is somewhat confusingly labelled 'a wolf in misogynist's clothing', an idiom corrupted by McCone's employer & friend Hank Zahn.
Thankfully things pick up in the final third when McCone starts to get close to solving the case and things get tough. And as we all know, when the going gets tough, the tough slip a .38 Special into their purse. In the end though there just wasn't enough potential to bring me back for more.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A cold Day for Murder

Dana Stabenow kicks off her long running series featuring Kate Shugak, a native detective in the frozen wilds of Alaska. The mystery is slight with much of the page count given over to developing the characters and establishing the close knit community. For such a short book it has a slow, some might say glacial pace that some will welcome if they're looking for a cosy few hours with crackling fires, plenty to drink and more culinary creations featuring moose than you could possibly eat. I'd drop it in the same sort of bracket as Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire books. Stabenow's own experience of growing up in Alaska are perhaps the main reason the books work so well, with the natural nostalgia and affection for the locale and its people coming through strongly and which no amount of research or googling could ever imitate. The lead character is a diminutive though fiery character, strong willed and forthright and if that doesn't scare the bejeebus out of every suspect, the half wolf half husky dog who follows her about everywhere she goes should finish the job. I had a few slight issues with her using randomly the first and second names of the characters to mark dialogue in the early chapters (bit confusing) but other than that early stumble I found the book very readable.                             

Thursday, 10 April 2014


The Nameless Detective series really hits its stride following up the superb Hoodwink with another great slice of noir. The book opens with Nameless getting down to a bit of jogging. The things folk will do for love. He's still going steady with Kerry and she's suggested he take some exercise to rid himself of some of his extra ampleness. Jogging isn't really his thing though, neither is healthy eating but he's desperate to please his girl. The relationship is heading into a fair bit of turbulance though. Spurred on by the green eyed monster Nameless turns up the pressure on Kerry to get married, which soon makes matters worse. Business is booming though and he soon has three supposedly routine jobs on the go. But the scattershot of the title is about to hit with a fusillade of bad luck that threatens to strip him of everything he loves. Nameless is a born worrier and this time he has plenty to worry about.
With his girlfriend giving him the cold shoulder Nameless sinks into a blue funk and turns to his other true love; the stories from his pulp magazines from titles like Double Detective, Dime Detective, Black Mask etc with classic pulp writers like Norbert Davis, Cornell Woolrich & Judson Philips. His choice of viewing for a four hour movie stint at the theatre is a pair of classic noir oldies - Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe & Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum - both of which featured in my own Christmas noir-fest of 2009.
Pronzini has delivered another of his superb page turners that serves up a trio of locked room mysteries, with varying degrees of cleverness both in the puzzles and the way Nameless attempts to solve them. Scattershot is also an essential title for those of us trying to read them in order to follow our hero's ongoing story. This one's a game changer.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Fabulous Clipjoint

By the time Fredric Brown wrote this, his first full novel, he had already been a prolific contributor to the pulp mags of the 1930s & 40s, turning in works across multiple genres from Sci-fi to Noir. The Fabulous Clipjoint duly won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and introduced a popular pair of would be detectives, Ed & Ambrose Hunter, that would feature in a further six novels. Ed is an 18 year old living in Chicago with his father, step mother and teenage step sister. His hum drum existence as a printer working at the same firm as his father by day and dreaming of becoming a jazz musician by night is shattered when his father is found dead, murdered in a dark alley in a seedy part of town. Teaming up with his Uncle, a carnival worker and ex private dick, who he hasn't seen for a decade, Ed vows to track down the killer. Brown has a unique approach to writing noir that surely shouldn't work. He manages to evoke a gritty, shadowy world filled with suspense, while also maintaining a streak of humour that runs throughout. It's both a crime story and a coming of age story as Ed follows what leads they have, while discovering how little he really knew about his own father from the stories Am tells. Brown's playfullness with the narrative comes to the fore in the scenes where Ed does a spot of roleplay, playing a sharp-suited gun killer with an imaginary gun as they try to bluff info out of suspects. And it's smooth. Brown's first person narrative and snappy dialogue just roll through the mind. It's not short of detail either with Ambrose's sometimes off the wall observations fuelled by the author's own wide experience ranging from the nature of handbags to the basic physical structure of the universe, carney lingo, pop culture references, Jazz, movies, books etc. There are clever little touches like Ed ordering "Rye," from the bartender because he'd seen George Raft order it in the 1935 version of The Glass Key but getting Dutch courage not from a stiff drink but rather from the Juke box and the high wail of Benny Goodman's clarinet. After reading several ultra cynical modern day noir novels recently it was refreshing to see that even during the golden age of the genre Noir wasn't always entirely bleak, cold and black.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Spring already

So it's the first day of spring though the weatherfolk seem to think we started already. This is one of the last pictures we ever took of Harry before he got ill and passed on. I know I posted this before but it's been a while since we've seen him on here. Back when I first started blogging he featured all the time. So here he is once again discovering spring, like he did every year until 2011 and still does in our memories.

My dog discovered Spring,
Though it wasn't hard to find.
It's carried on the air,
The song of feathered kind.
Soon the blossom,
The hungry nests,
Life rioting all around.
It cannot hide
This tide of life.
My dog barks,"Spring is found."
Michael Finn

Thursday, 13 March 2014


So a few nights ago I was wandering around my home town, singing the theme from True Detective at the top of my lungs and wondering what the hell happened to my Batman pyjamas. An acoustic accompaniment surged up from the brickwork and echoed along the inky blackness of the Leeds/Liverpool like the ghosts of dead navvies playing for their souls. And then I woke up, lurid trouserware restored. You can't get away from Nic Pizzolatto's enthralling tv series even in the embrace of Morpheus. Having reached episode three, further research revealed the writer and brainchild behind the series had written a fairly well received novel. So here it is. It tells the story of Roy Cady or rather Roy tells his own story. He's a bagman for a New Orleans loan shark named Stan Ptitko. Roy gets a double life changing alarm call in the shape of lung cancer and an attempt to set him up for the big sleep by his own boss. What our unreliable narrator steers our gaze away from is just how bad a man Roy Cady is, his job description often going way beyond threats with menaces. Roy is very good at making other people dead. He survives his date with death, killing everyone at the double cross and along with the only other survivor, a young prostitute, the two of them hit the road.
It would be a stretch to describe the book as a crime thriller though it certainly occupies the framework of a crime novel but like its protagonist it wants to be something else. Pizzolatto is far more committed to exploring human nature. Roy is the archetypal killer. It's the man's one true tallent. And he wants to change. Wants to draw a line. He's confronted with his own mortality which forces him to look into the shadows of his own character. He sees the young prostitute, Rocky, as being something still unminted. She's the vamp - the femme fatale but Roy still sees the archetypal ingenue or at least the possibility. If he can't save himself, then maybe he can save her. But Rocky has her own dark secrets and motivations that confound Roy's expectations. The crime novel has never been a genre that disregarded the philosophical but generally it would be used to colour the narrative and add depth and substance to the characters, rather than actually being the focus, with the plot and narrative falling behind to mere backdrop.  There are some big ideas and complex philosophical conundrums going on that Galvaston with its always sunny beach and Motel populated with broken or lost humanity, somehow serves up the time to explore them in a pulp sized burp of fiction. And like in True Detective, Pizzolatto uses the passage of time to show a more complete picture of the life tracks involved. People change and one smiling snapshot in the sun tells nothing at all. The author's writing is insightful, colourful, entertaining and challenging. Some of the early chapters are filled with some eyebrow lifting metaphor and imagery but it soon gets reigned in as Pizzolatto finds his stride. A true page turner.

Saturday, 1 March 2014


This one holds on to its forth star by the skin of its teeth. The cleanness of Pronzini's complex plotting is mired under a snarl of coincidences that form the overarching theme of the book. It doesn't quite have anywhere to go though and our nameless hero is reluctant to wrestle with the metaphysics of relentless fate so it ends up simply with our hero puzzled and deflected by the coincidences. Nameless is certainly off his game even though he's out from under the shadow of that wracking cough and the incipient threat it promised during the first batch of novels in the series. The tangles in the case he's investigating come unravelled more from the paranoia of the perps than from any real deduction on his part. Major plusses are the locations. San Fran rising up though the fog. Bodega Bay, location of Hitchcock's superbly noirish (screenplay by Evan Hunter) The Birds is easy to call up, even after the woes of rampant commercialism that Nameless/Pronzini rail against having supposedly spoilt the isolated remoteness of the place.
In the end Pronzini has a last attempt to make something of the rash of coincidences but unless you step over the genre boundary into horror à la Final Destination or the Omen and add a supernatural element it's got no real bite. Frankly I was more disturbed by Nameless's seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of nautical terms.

Friday, 17 January 2014

King's Ransom

After the last couple of slightly under par books, McBain blasts back with one of the best so far. It's a really snappy read with plenty of the author's trademark forays into the philosophical but also with a strong theme running throughout examining the degrees of ruthlessness that men will employ to follow their dreams. Think Shakespeare à la McBeth in a shoe factory. The book opens during a long scene at a board meeting where several share holders begin plotting to gain control of the company so they can produce a cheaper shoe. Doug King ridicules their plans and storms out of the meeting, his own plans already in place. Plans that are immediately threatened by both treachery from within and the kidnapping of his son from without. But worse is to come when it's discovered the kidnapped boy was not his son but rather the Chauffeur's boy; the dilemma of whether to still pay the ransom and financially ruin himself or to save himself and let the boy die being one that would have social consequences just as final.
The entire precinct are called out to hunt the kidnappers, though the police angle on this one is secondary to the King family and the Kidnappers. Carella carries most of the police angle with a little support from Meyer and the boorish Parker, though even Lt. Byrnes comes out from behind his desk to lend a hand. It all gets very tense. The plot was used and expanded upon in the highly regarded Japanese film 'High & Low' by the brilliant Akira Kurosawa.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Til Death

Ed Mcbain's 9th in the ever entertaining 87th Precinct is a bit of a departure, lighter than usual with McBain in a playful mood throughout. The plot is slight of stature with Steve Carella responding to an unsubstantiated threat to his soon to be brother-in-law's life on his wedding day. A threat that comes with company, in the tiny but dangerous form of a black widow spider. As plot devices goes, McBain might have to beg pardon for his cliches. But never mind that. Once the ball is rolling McBain goes to work. He populates every blind corner and opportunity with the threat of impending death, has suspects crawling from every shadow and he has a ball doing it. Carella drafts in two of his off duty colleagues, Kling & Hawes with girlfriend in tow, and tasks them with keeping vigil during the big day. Carella himself attends with his heavily pregnant wife Teddy. Even with impending murder lurking, the tensions and distractions of a good wedding can keep even the most professional detective's senses blunted. Before long things escalate and Meyer Meyer and O'Brian are also drafted, tracking a trombone case all over the city.
I've mentioned in previous reviews McBains attitude to editorial directives. Cotton Hawes was one such directive when his publishers deemed Carella too old and too married to persistently carry off the hero's role. Subsequently McBain proceeded to create a young hero, Cotton Hawes, that he would delight in sending up and humiliating at every opportunity. At the same time in 'Til Death, the author spends nearly an entire book introducing the extended family of the detective he was directed to ditch, developing Carella's relationships and history yet further. 'Til Death is a bit of an oddity in the series, being several steps closer to being a theatrical farce than to the gritty police procedural we are used to, but as ever McBain's easy prose, the banter and snappy dialogue coupled with the carefully nurtured cast of regulars makes for a short though enjoyable interlude in city cop life.