Book Review: The Chain by Adrian McKinty

THE CHAIN

Author: Adrian McKinty

Publisher: Orion

Release Date: July 2019

At the outset of Adrian McKinty’s multi-award-winning standalone novel The Chain, a stranger kidnaps Rachel’s 13-year-old daughter, Kylie. Within minutes, an anonymous phone call informs Rachel that if she wants to free her daughter, she must abduct someone else’s child. Kylie will only be released when her victim’s parents kidnap another child. If any of these steps don’t happen, the kidnapped child/children will be killed. What follows is grim and enthralling.

I enjoyed the pulpy thrills of McKinty’s Michael Forsythe trilogy many years ago, but the masterful Sean Duffy series (which commenced with 2012’s The Cold, Cold Ground) was a real cut above, and deserved a far wider readership. The Chain is a very different book altogether, and feels like a more mainstream-orientated proposition. Mainstream can be a dirty word, and a lot of high-concept thrillers I have dabbled with over the years have left me cold and unengaged.

Impressively, The Chain clicks straight away, and McKinty takes a deep dive into his character’s lives, presenting Rachel as a fully-rounded protagonist. The Massachusetts locale feels grubby and lived-in, and the tension is cranked up notch by notch as Rachel’s ominous mission unfolds.

Masterfully plotted and completely gripping, The Chain deserves all of the praise heaped on it to date. I just hope that this emotionally bruising page-turner helps to persuade more readers to investigate the excellent Duffy series as well. Superb stuff.

Review by Tom Leins

The Interrogation Room – An Interview With S.A. Cosby

Next up in the Interrogation Room, Tom Leins talks to S.A. Cosby to discuss his new book Blacktop Wasteland, which has already earned plaudits from the likes of Lee Child, Dennis Lehane and Walter Mosley!

Firstly, congratulations on the upcoming publication of Blacktop Wasteland! How would you pitch the book to potential readers?

It’s Hell or Highwater meets Drive but with black people from the South.

What do you hope that readers take away from the story?

I hope that people will get a glimpse into a world they don’t often see. Black Rural America. That they might gain an understanding of how hard it is to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps when you don’t have any boots.

The title – and the excellent cover – conjure up a ‘70s vibe. Do you have a favourite era for crime fiction?

I’m a child of the ‘80s, but I grew up on ‘60s and ‘70s era crime fiction. The work of Donald Goines, early Elmore Leonard, books likes The Friends of Eddie Coyle or movies like Cotton Comes to Harlem shaped my sensibilities. There is an undeniable grittiness and sense of place that is unique to the time period that I just love.

It seems like you’ve had an incredible couple of years – with a lot more excitement in the pipeline. What has been your personal highlight to date?

I think winning the Anthony Award. It’s voted on by both writers and fans and it felt like such a moment of validation. I’m a poor kid from the low country of Virginia. A college dropout who grew up in a trailer and there I was holding aloft an award that had previously been won by my writing heroes. For all time when someone mentions the Anthony Awards they can talk about Dennis Lehane, Barbara Neely and me… ha, ha!

Since the news of the movie option dropped recently, how much thought have you given to actor/director wish-lists?

Oh man, when I was writing the book, I had certain actors and directors in mind. My dream cast is either Winston Duke or John David Washington as Bug, Timothy Olyphant as Ronnie and F. Gary Gray as the director…

You have been blurbed by some excellent authors – which one would you most like to sit down and have a drink with?

Wow, way to put me on the spot (ha, ha!). I mean they are all great and I’m blown away by all their kind words. I can’t narrow it down to just one so I’ll say Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane so we can drink Old Fashioneds and talk about narrative structure. Or what’s our favourite way to beat up on bad guys.

For your money, which writers (mainstream or independent) are doing the most interesting work in contemporary crime fiction?

There are so many great crime authors putting out really interesting and bold crime fiction these days. For my money the ones that have blown me away are Eryk Pruitt, Kelly J. Ford, Kellye Garrett, John Vercher, Jake Hinson, Angel Luis Colon and Jennifer Hillier. I’m in awe of all of them and the way they are taking the genre into new and intriguing places.

If your career trajectory could follow that of any writer, who would you pick, and why?

I mentioned him already, but I’d love if my career had one-tenth of the longevity of Walter Mosley’s.

Looking ahead, can you share details of any upcoming projects?

I just finished the first draft of my next crime novel tentatively titled RAZORBLADE TEARS.  I call it The Defiant Ones meets Rolling Thunder.

Finally, if you could go back – to when you first started getting your work in front of people – and give your younger self one piece of writing advice, what would it be?

Write fearlessly. Stand up for your vision.  Don’t spend so much money on cheap liquor.

Bio:

S.A. Cosby is an award-winning writer from South-eastern Virginia. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including THUGLIT, TOUGH, The Faking of the President, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and many others. His first rural noir crime novel MY DARKEST PRAYER was published in 2019 by INTRIGUE PUBLISHING.  He was awarded the Anthony for Best Short Story at the 50th Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. His latest novel BLACKTOP WASTELAND comes out July 14th of this year from FLATIRON BOOOKS.

Website:

You can follow him @blacklionking73 on Twitter or at S.A. Cosby Author on Facebook

Book Review: Changeling by Matt Wesolowski

CHANGELING (SIX STORIES BOOK 3)

Author: Matt Wesolowski

Publisher: Orenda Books

Release Date: November 2018

In Changeling, online journalist Scott King – who has become an internet sensation thanks to his ‘Six Stories’ podcasts – enters a world of pain when he looks into the chilling case of seven-year-old Alfie Marsden, who vanished from his father’s car on Christmas Eve 1988.

The little boy went missing in the notorious Wentshire Forest Pass, a location plagued with supernatural stories and strange sightings, which was subsequently acquired by the RAF and fenced off to dissuade prying eyes. No trace of the boy was ever found, and Alfie was officially declared dead in 1995, but the case continues to cast a grim shadow over those familiar with it. 30 years on, can Scott King get any closer to the truth?

Changeling – the third book in Matt Wesolowski’s acclaimed ‘Six Stories’ series – is a sly, multi-faceted mystery, and the author wrongfooted me more than once as he picked away at the scabs of a notorious cold case. The conflicting witness statements that make up the book’s narrative offer grisly, bone-deep examinations of the unfortunate characters and their questionable motivations, and the effect is completely gripping. This technique allows the author to not only get under the protagonists’ skins – but also get under yours.

He also includes a layer of grubby realism lacking in a lot of high-concept mysteries and the book is unnerving on a number of levels. While the murky supernatural elements of the book hit the spot, they pale in comparison to the all-too-human terrors that are uncovered as the story evolves. The Six Stories series boasts an intriguing premise, and Changeling – my first encounter with Wesolowski’s work – is extremely well-executed and makes for disturbingly compulsive reading. Highly recommended.

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: The Reddening by Adam L. G. Nevill

THE REDDENING

Author: Adam L. G. Nevill

Publisher: Ritual Limited

Release Date: October 2019

When a stack of human remains and prehistoric artefacts is discovered in the small town of Brickburgh, a media circus descends upon South Devon. One of the reporters pressed into service is lifestyle journalist Katrine, who has escaped her traumatic past by moving to the sedate environs of the Westcountry. Meanwhile, single parent Helene also finds herself drawn to Brickburgh – haunted by the subterranean recordings her dead brother Lincoln made six years earlier. The deeper the two women dig, the more myth and reality start to blur in this sleepy corner of Devon. Are the rumoured disappearances – dating back decades – connected to the shadowy drug plantations? Or are they related to sightings of the mythical ‘red folk’? Or is the truth too hideous to contemplate?

Earlier this year I was walking the coastal path between Paignton and Brixham – a walk I have done dozens of times – when I got distracted by my phone and ended up straying off the beaten track. Unconcerned, I trudged ahead into a ravaged section of landscape I had no recollection of ever seeing before. I felt suddenly disorientated, but unable to turn back. I carried on for another five minutes – each step stranger than the last until something in my mind snapped like one of the rotten branches underfoot and I hastily retraced my steps, through tangled foliage and across uprooted tree trunks, and re-joined the coastal path. I was so unnerved that I joked to some friends that evening that I briefly felt like I had stumbled into a scene from The Ritual! Not long after, I started reading The Reddening. Suffice to say, as a South Devon resident this book had an extra charge for me!

Most Devon horror stories begin and end on Dartmoor, so from the outset The Reddening feels like a particularly refreshing curve-ball of a story. Nevill has an impressive knack for bringing the coastal paths of Devon to life – and imbuing them with a sinister, otherworldly energy. His hyper-literate writing style is queasy and immersive at the same time and adds to the sense of slow building dread. He also shifts gears effortlessly. Whether veering into subterranean folk-horror or gruelling survival thriller territory, the action is always utterly convincing. In addition, all of the main characters and supporting players have meaty, convincing back stories and never feel like unfinished sketches.

Suffice to say, The Reddening is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last year – a fantastic achievement, and a book squirms with the kind of rotten scenes that live long in the memory. There are insidious horrors lurking amongst the mud, shit and foliage in South Devon. I dare you to take a closer look.

Buy The Reddening!

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: A Lovely Way To Burn by Louise Welsh

A LOVELY WAY TO BURN

Author: Louise Welsh

Publisher: John Murray

Release Date: March 2014

A Lovely Way To Burn unfolds in contemporary London, as a deadly pandemic known as ‘The Sweats’ takes hold and cuts a swathe through the population. Set against the backdrop of a city in crisis, the story follows Stevie – a feisty shopping channel host – who is determined to investigate the sudden death of her boyfriend, the eminent Dr Simon Sharkey. As bodies start to pile up across the capital, and London becomes gridlocked with people fleeing infection, Stevie plunges deeper into the ravaged cityscape in search of answers.

I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) this book in January – before most people had encountered the increasingly terrifying Coronavirus – and every time I sat down to write my review the world had seemingly lurched slightly further into pre-apocalyptic chaos… which put me off revisiting the book until now!

It may seem macabre to recommend a relentlessly grim book about a fictional pandemic during an actual pandemic, but A Lovely Way To Burn was first-rate. The prose is fantastic – the line about a teenage soldier’s bad teeth being ‘as crowded and overlapping as drinkers in a station bar’ was one of my favourites. I read Louise Welsh’s excellent debut novel The Cutting Room (2002) nearly two decades ago, and while this is a very different beast, it is no less impressive. It’s a genuinely gripping thriller grounded by its refreshingly down-to-earth protagonist and impeccable attention to detail.

If the sudden onslaught of an inexplicable infection seemed too far-fetched when this book was published six years ago, it now seems uncomfortably prescient. (Note: A Lovely Way To Burn is the first in the ‘Plague Times Trilogy’. I’m sure we’ll have the time to read all three of them before normal life – or something close to it – resumes.)

Review by Tom Leins

 

The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Sonia Kilvington

Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Sonia Kilvington to discuss her new short story collection, Nightmare Asylum & Other Deadly Delights (Close To The Bone).

Firstly, congratulations on the publication of Nightmare Asylum! How hard was it to select the stories – and indeed the running order?

I have been writing short stories for the last thirty years or more, and I have always dreamt of having my own collection. I selected my favourite stories with the strongest characters and the most unique situations for the book. Still, I wasn’t sure about the running order and wondered if I should have started it with a horror story or maybe I should have begun with a little more conventionally structured story such as ‘Women’s Work’. I am always second-guessing myself.

Do you have a favourite story in the collection? If so, why is it your favourite?

Yes, I do! It took me about five years to write ‘Nightmare Asylum’ because I did so many drafts, trying to capture the atmosphere of a reoccurring nightmare that I had experienced in my twenties. Night after night I dreamt I was trapped in a Victorian mental asylum and nobody would believe a word I said. I have no idea where that dream came from although I was taken a couple of scary looking psychiatric hospitals to visit a relative when I was young. I channelled my feelings of frustration from the dream into the story as well as my belief in the paranormal. For years it felt like the story I really needed to write.

What is the oldest story in the book? How do you think your style has evolved since then?

The oldest story is ‘Winter Baby’ which I wrote twenty-six years ago. It’s been through many of edits since its earliest conception! My style was a lot more poetic back then, and I have gradually moved away from that, although at times the poetry tends to creep back in.

Your collection has been published by Close To The Bone – do you have any favourite CTTB authors or titles you would like to recommend?

Of course! I am keeping excellent company with writers such as yourself, Chris Roy and the marvellous Paul D. Brazill! There’s a stack of excellent books available from CTTB but, my personal favourites are, Meat Bubbles & Other Stories, Her Name is Mercie and A Case of Noir. For future fun I have pre-ordered, Come Join The Murder by Holly Rae Garcia.

Do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?

I love audiobooks and will listen to the latest psychological thrillers, crime fiction and noir, especially if the actors/actresses have interesting voices. When I read, I prefer independent books, which don’t usually make it to Audible.

If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?

I have never really thought of writing fiction as a career, it always been a passion that I hoped I would be able to share with people who were willing to read my stories. I greatly admire writers who have many different tales to tell, especially Stephen King, who has had his books made into some terrific films. I would love to have some of my more unusual stories made into movies as they are very visual, especially ‘Nightmare Asylum’ and ‘Perfect Love’.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans?

I am thinking of turning one of the shortest stories from the book, Jake, into a novella as the characters are still lingering in my head and I think they have a lot more to say. I am also planning on re-editing my first novel, the Main Line Murders, before writing the final instalment of my DI Flynn series. There’s a lot to do, so not too much time for messing about re-writing the same sentences for hours on end, as I usually do.

Bio:

Sonia Kilvington is a journalist and fiction writer from Cyprus, who loves to write dark and disturbing short stories in genres such as noir, crime, horror and sci-fi. Credits include Out of the Gutter Online, Spelk Fiction, Pulp Metal Magazine and Near To The Knuckle. Her new short story collection, Nightmare Asylum & Other Deadly Delights – published by Close To The Bone, is available on Amazon.

Website: https://soniakilvingtonwriter.com/

 

Book Review: Stay Ugly by Daniel Vlasaty

STAY UGLY

Author: Daniel Vlasaty

Publisher: All Due Respect (an imprint of Down & Out Books)

Release Date: February 2020

Eric is an ex-con, bare-knuckle boxer better known around the Rogers Park neighbourhood of Chicago as ‘Ugly’. While he wants to ditch his violent past – and his notorious nickname – his criminal associates have other ideas…

When his estranged junkie brother Joe steals $100,000 from a local drug dealer, Ugly finds himself on the hook for the debt – unless he hands the kid over. At a loss for where to turn, he enlists his old buddy, Nicky – a man still dick-deep in the thug-life – and the duo hit the streets to find him. Inevitably, each step takes him deeper into the life he’s desperate to leave behind, and things are going to get seriously bloody before the night is over.

Stay Ugly is raw and nasty in all the right places. Punch-drunk bare-knuckle hardman Ugly is our tour guide across nocturnal Chicago, and his quest to find his junkie brother is a bone-shattering, bullet-strewn treat. The violence and the backdrop feel grim and authentic throughout, and Ugly’s sordid trawl is detailed in tight, gritty prose. This book fights hard and it fights dirty, and Daniel Vlasaty has crafted a brutally entertaining dog-eat-dog thriller.

All Due Respect has published crime fiction spanning a number of different sub-genres over the years, but is probably best known for its savage, unforgiving novellas. This vicious slab of badass storytelling is another winner, and fits right in with the many highlights in the ADR back catalogue. Savage, visceral stuff.

Buy Stay Ugly!

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Slow Bear by Anthony Neil Smith

SLOW BEAR

Author: Anthony Neil Smith

Publisher: Fahrenheit Press

Release Date: January 2020

Micah ‘Slow Bear’ Cross used to be a reservation cop – until his left arm was shot off in a violent altercation. Like many men with lax moral codes, he did well in the lawless Bakken oil fields of North Dakota – but those days are long gone. Now he spends his time nursing warm beer, lazily flirting with casino barmaid Kylie. A spectacularly poor decision earns the wrath of his former boss, and Slow Bear finds himself forced into a thankless fact-finding mission. His target is Santana the Exile – a man with fingers in lots of unsavoury pies. The ex-cop’s mission starts badly and quickly gets worse – a lot fucking worse.

Slow Bear is an unofficial sequel to Worm, which was published in 2015 by Blasted Heath (since re-released by Down & Out Books). Slow Bear was a memorable supporting character – in a book full of memorable supporting characters – and this new book picks up his story further down the line. Worm ranks as one of my favourite crime novels of the last decade, so I was excited to see what Smith had up his sleeve this time around.

Slow Bear reads like Worm’s weirder, shiftier little brother. The boomtown is now a fracking-wracked ghost town, and the seedy pleasures on offer are now queasier than ever. Everything is dingier, nastier, more savage, except Slow Bear, that is – who has lost his edge as well as his arm.

This brisk book (it clocks in at around 130 pages) is a bleak, surreal page-turner – so hardboiled it hurts. While Slow Bear doesn’t quite hit the delirious heights of Worm, it is a great book – and one that teases at future misadventures for its hapless anti-hero. I can’t wait!

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Tommy Shakes by Rob Pierce

TOMMY SHAKES

Author: Rob Pierce

Publisher: All Due Respect (an imprint of Down & Out Books)

Release Date: September 2019

Tommy Shakowski AKA ‘Tommy Shakes’ earned his name as a heroin addict, but now he’s just a drunk. A drunk who has convinced himself that his next big score will be enough to win back the affections of his increasingly distant wife and son. When the opportunity to join a couple of freelancers and take part in a heist emerges, Tommy attempts to clean up his act and wrestle control of the scam. People skills aren’t high on Tommy’s CV, however, and the stress of managing a crew of sociopaths drives him back to the bottle. Little does he know, the target – a popular restaurant that runs an illegal sports book out back – is affiliated with a notorious Chinese mobster, and Tommy is about to enter a world of shit and pain.

Tommy is a colossal fuck-up, incapable of real change, and whatever charm he once had has been eroded by years of hard drinking and low-level criminality. His booze intake is staggering enough, but his gastrointestinal problems are even worse, and Pierce details the whole sorry ordeal in gleefully graphic detail. Indeed, it is this unflinching approach that sets the story apart from similar material – and highlights Pierce as a writer that is willing to go where other writers fear to tread.

The tone is paranoid, booze-fuelled and distrustful throughout and Tommy Shakes plays out like a shit-streaked nightmare, with the title character lurching between toilet bowls and terrible decisions – unaware how bad things are really getting. If taciturn tough guys, simmering violence and pungent criminality are your thing, then this book is a memorable addition to the heist sub-genre.

Tommy Shakes reads like an excrement-splattered George V. Higgins caper, and – take it from me – no one is going to get away clean – least of all the hapless Tommy…

Buy Tommy Shakes!

Review by Tom Leins

 

The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Daniel Vlasaty

Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Daniel Vlasaty to discuss his new book, Stay Ugly (All Due Respect).

Congratulations on the publication of Stay Ugly! How would you pitch the book to potential readers?

Eric is an ex-con, bareknuckle boxer better known around his Chicago neighborhood as “Ugly.” He wants to shed his past, build a life with his family, but his past won’t be so easily left behind. His junkie brother Joe has stolen $100K from a powerful drug dealer—and Ugly’s on the hook unless he hands Joe over.

I loved the energy, the violence, the tone… but the book may prove too visceral for some crime readers’ tastes. Do you think too much contemporary crime fiction pulls its punches, or are our tastes too extreme?
I never really gave much thought to the violence I put in my books. But that’s probably because I do write about violent people doing bad things in a violent neighborhood in a city known worldwide for its violence. So, it just feels natural to me. I don’t think you can set a crime story in gangland Chicago without there being excess levels of the shit.

As far as how my stuff compares to other contemporary crime fiction, I can’t speak to that. I just want my shit to feel authentic.

But I will say that my other books have been criticized for being “unrealistic.” I’ve been told people don’t talk the way my characters talk. People don’t act the way my characters act. Shit like that. But I think that just depends on the kinds of people you know, the kinds of places you frequent, the kind of life you live.
For the last 14 years I’ve worked in methadone clinics and psych hospitals all throughout Chicago. I used to run a detox unit for heroin addicts and alcoholics. I’ve facilitated groups for people coming out of prison, people court-ordered into treatment. I’ve sat and counseled and talked with and laughed with murderers and active gang members.

And I can tell you that my shit comes off sounding pretty fucking tame when compared to some of the stories I’ve heard.

This book was published by the fantastic All Due Respect; do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?

I try to read everything. I don’t ever want to be about only one thing — if that makes any fucking sense at all. That being said, I do tend to favour indie crime fiction, obviously.

I like to read stories that hit quick and hard. I don’t want to be bored. I don’t like things to be overly descriptive. I don’t want to read a crime story with long, flowing prose. I want to read a story that fucks my shit up and doesn’t even give me a second to catch my breath.

Which contemporary writers do you consider to be your peers?

I’m pretty comfortable over here with the rest of the All Due Respect family.

If you could recommend one crime novel that people are unlikely to have heard of, what would it be?
For some reason I’m drawing a complete fucking blank on novels right now but my brain keeps going to comic books. I feel like crime comics don’t get enough play in “literary” circles. I love anything and everything Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have done together — Criminal, Bad Weekend, Scene of the Crime, The Fade Out, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, Fatale, Kill or Be Killed, etc.

Also if you haven’t read it, most def check out Scalped by Jason Aaron and R.M Guera. It’s about an undercover FBI agent assigned to infiltrate the police force on the reservation where he was raised. It’s violent and dangerous and beautiful and sexy and blah-blah-blah.

If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?
I would just love to quit my fucking job and be able to support my family with my writing. So, I guess any writer that is able to do that would be my answer. And the reason would be because I hate going to my current job every single day like some fucking sap.

But you know, money and bills and responsibilities and all that shit.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans? Without giving too much away, the ending to Stay Ugly appears to pave the way for a sequel…?

Paul D. Brazill was the first person to suggest a Stay Ugly sequel to me. Prior to that the thought never crossed my mind. I figured I was done with Ugly and Nicky. But I liked the idea and started to mess around with it a bit. I got a few chapters outlined right now and I’m having fun with it. It’s set two years after Stay Ugly and shit’s already getting bloody. Its working title is Please Come Back to Us

Aside from that I’m “working” on at least three other books.

Methadone is a fictionalized version of an actual robbery that happened at the methadone clinic where I currently work. The real thing was crazy, I’m talking machine guns and a score of about $1,000,000 worth of methadone.

Them Animals is set in the aftermath of a drive-by shooting/massacre. The story alternates between the only survivor of the shooting (a sixteen years old girl and her family) and also the inner workings of the gangs on both sides of the shooting.

Gets You Dead is about a dude getting mixed up with some mobsters after his uncle, another low-level wise guy, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Bio: Daniel Vlasaty is the author of The Church of TV as God, Amphetamine Psychosis, Only Bones, A New and Different Kind of Pain, and Stay Ugly. He lives a few miles outside of Chicago with his wife and daughter and works at a methadone clinic.

Website: Facebook, mostly. I used to have a website but I let the domain lapse and now danielvlasaty.com sells some kind of Japanese space heater or some shit.

 Buy Stay Ugly!