Book Review: Streets of Darkness by A. A. Dhand

STREETS OF DARKNESS

Author: A. A. Dhand

Publisher: Transworld

Release Date: June 2016

At the outset of Streets of Darkness high-flying Bradford cop Harry Virdee is on suspension for breaking a man’s jaw. Until a moment of hot-headed impetuousness derailed his career, he was going places – his brutally efficient knack for getting results playing well with his results-orientated superiors. When a pillar of the local Asian community is found murdered with a swastika carved into his chest, Detective Superintendent George Simpson offers Harry a shot at redemption – track down Lucas Dwight, the notorious ex-BNP leader who has just been released from prison, before the city descends into violence.

Streets of Darkness is a compelling contemporary thriller that explores a group of disparate characters trampling the racial fault-lines in the post-industrial Northern city of Bradford. Caught in the crossfire is Harry Virdee, a British-Asian cop, whose ability to cross between cultures – and his knowledge of the underworld – gives him an edge few of his colleagues can muster.

Dhand serves up a fast-paced blend of pulpy, violent scenes, searing social commentary and unscrupulous characters throughout. While the dialogue sometimes lapses into B-movie territory, the action is generally undercut with a wry, twisted sense of humour, and the book scores extra points for providing an insight into Bradford’s past and present, as well as scrutinising the often-conflicted Anglo-Asian experience. A fascinating series opener – I look forward to more.

Review by Tom Leins

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Book Review: Sirens by Joseph Knox

SIRENS

Author: Joseph Knox

Publisher: Black Swan

Release Date: January 2017

After a potentially career-ending mistake, nihilistic Manchester cop Aidan Waits finds himself pressurised into participating in a murky undercover investigation on behalf of shadowy politician David Rossiter – a man whose teenage daughter, Isabelle, has shacked up with charismatic local drug-lord Zain Carver. His superiors are unconcerned about his slim prospects of survival, and Waits finds himself plunged into a hellish limbo populated by warring dealers, alluring bar girls and ruined corpses. Can he keep it together long enough to untangle the labyrinthine mystery, or is he destined to die face down in a Manchester gutter?

Manchester always feels like an underexplored noir backdrop, and Joseph Knox comprehensively redresses the balance with this rain-slick, booze-sodden, smack-ravaged depiction of a city overflowing with dark secrets. Aidan Waits isn’t a dirty cop, but he is definitely a figure tainted with the bad decisions of his past. In Sirens he finds himself mired in a dubious off-the-books investigation, where the only way to gain credibility is to play up to his tarnished reputation.

Knox’s book is seemingly more influenced by the murkier strands of US crime fiction than by the kind of standard-issue UK police procedurals that he is now sharing shelf-space with, and Sirens is an arresting debut novel that immediately marks him out as an author to watch. The tone is as bleak and brooding as the Joy Division albums that provide the book’s unofficial soundtrack, and the fully fleshed-out world that Waits inhabits is set up nicely for a series of smart, urban thrillers. Terrific stuff.

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD

Author: Attica Locke

Publisher: Serpent’s Tail

Release Date: September 2017

At the outset of Bluebird, Bluebird, Darren Mathews – a committed Texas Ranger with marital troubles and alcohol dependency issues – is suspended from active duty pending the conclusion of an investigation into his involvement in a violent altercation between a long-time family friend and a local racist thug. However, when a pair of bodies – a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman – are dragged out of the bayou in an East Texas town called Lark, Mathews puts the job he loves in jeopardy and travels up Highway 59 to investigate. In doing so, the town’s racial fault-lines are blown wide open, and all manner of uncomfortable secrets come tumbling out.

The publishing process is a long and arduous one, and I’m sure this book was completed long before Donald Trump oozed into the White House and cranked up his bile-flecked carnival barker theatrics. Nevertheless, the antagonists here feel like Trump supporters to a man – from self-satisfied local landowner Wally Jefferson, to the meth-fuelled Aryan Brotherhood members who drink in the nearby bar he owns – and the ugly racial tensions give the book a frighteningly contemporary feel.

The swaggering-but-damaged Mathews is a great conduit for the righteous anger that Locke’s book runs on: an imperfect man with perfect values, kicking over rocks in a town where he clearly isn’t welcome. Combining the personal and the political is a tough feat, and Locke makes it look easy.

The central mystery that drives the narrative of Bluebird, Bluebird is a puzzle wrapped in contradictions and contrivances, and in a lesser writer’s hands this could have diminished the story’s appeal. Locke’s easy storytelling style and rich, evocative prose means that this is never an issue, and the story is unpredictable and spiked with tension.

Locke’s excellent 2009 debut Black Water Rising was a memorable, impressive book, and Bluebird, Bluebird is every bit as good. I look forward to the sequel – and the in-development TV series that is reportedly on the cards.

Review by Tom Leins

 

Book Review: These Darkening Days by Benjamin Myers

THESE DARKENING DAYS

Author: Benjamin Myers

Publisher: Moth Publishing

Release Date: September 2017

These Darkening Days – the sequel to the acclaimed Turning Blue – finds local journalist Roddy Mace living on a houseboat and battling his alcoholic demons, while struggling to make progress with a true crime book (based on the grisly case depicted in Myers’ previous novel). Mace’s subdued routine is disrupted when a middle-aged woman is savagely attacked by a mystery assailant and left for dead in an alleyway.

As the local police force struggles to locate any worthwhile leads, the victim’s colourful past – she was an amateur porn star – sparks an unseemly tabloid frenzy in the small Pennine valley town. When further attacks occur, the unusual case piques the interest of a bored Detective James Brindle – currently on enforced leave from the enigmatic ‘Cold Storage’ unit – who decides the time is right to renew his uneasy acquaintanceship with Mace.

Last year I described Turning Blue as ‘easily one of the best British crime novels that I have read in the last decade’ – an assessment I stand by – so, it was with a degree of trepidation that I approached the follow-up. Myers is too smart to traipse over old ground, and this sequel is a sneaky whodunnit which offers a number of parallels to the earlier book – before yanking the story in a completely different direction.

Myers continues to play to his strengths: rural Psychogeography, queasy observational details and unflinching character studies of small-town misfits, but the crushing dread of the earlier book has been dialled down a couple of notches, and alleviated with lashings of dark humour – much of it relating to tabloid exploitation and vigilante justice.

These Darkening Days may lack some of the raw power of its predecessor, but it’s a terrific read, and a well-judged follow-up to a contemporary classic.

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: The Bad Kind of Lucky by Matt Phillips

THE BAD KIND OF LUCKY

Author: Matt Phillips

Publisher: Shotgun Honey (an imprint of Down & Out Books)

Release Date: November 2018

Two-time loser Remmie Miken doesn’t have much going for him, so when he is offered the opportunity to accompany a sadistic stranger to Mexico in pursuit of a missing prostitute it actually sounds like an appealing prospect!

Whereas Matt Phillips’ typical protagonists are unlucky guys who get dealt another shitty hand, main-man Miken makes an informed choice to cross the line and finds himself plunged into a hellish buddy-movie with the ruthless Trevor Spends. What follows is a savage excursion into low-life criminality.

By trading his grease-splattered life as a fry cook for a blood-splattered existence as Trevor’s sidekick, the hapless Remmie is about to realise that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side – but the scumbags are definitely more vicious!

This blood-pumping, border-hopping, bullet-spitting thrill-ride is Phillips’ best book yet. Highly recommended.

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Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Violent By Design by Paul Heatley

VIOLENT BY DESIGN

Author: Paul Heatley

Publisher: Near To The Knuckle

Release Date: September 2018

Set one year after the brutal events of An Eye For An Eye, Violent By Design opens with a raid on one of Newcastle mobster Neil Doyle’s drug houses. His new right-hand-man, Jimmy Finlay – fresh out of HMP Durham and keen to make a name for himself within Doyle’s firm – opts to keep the news from his ill-tempered boss and deal with things himself, only for the situation to go from bad to badly fucked. The culprit is a near-mythical ‘taxman’, whose past exploits sound so far-fetched that they are dismissed as junkie horror stories. The only problem is, he isn’t finished yet, and an all-out war erupts, splattering Newcastle red with blood. By the time the dust settles, it is clear that no one’s lives will ever be the same again…

Heatley’s recent novella The Runner was a nifty little companion piece, but this is definitely the book that fans of An Eye For An Eye were waiting for! Still coming to terms with the events of the earlier book, world-weary fixer Graeme Taylor has retreated from the city, and now lives at the very caravan park where the previous book ground to a halt – within spitting distance of his personal demons. Meanwhile, ‘Tracksuit’ Tony Gordon has traded his leisurewear for a proper suit, and climbed the muscle-bound ranks of the Doyle empire. And as for Doyle himself, he is vowing to go straight(-ish) with a bold new nightclub venture.

Last month I described The Runner as hardcore, dog-eat-dog Geordie noir. If that book’s antagonist, Davey Hoy, offered a canine-level threat, then I can’t even begin to work out where these savage motherfuckers come on the food-chain! The canvas is broader this time around, and the narrative scope more expansive, as Heatley serves up a ferocious rampage across the Newcastle underworld. Suffice to say, the various plot strands congeal in a glorious blood-slick mess.

Violent By Design is a shotgun-toting, tooth-ripping, skull-crushing treat, which cements Heatley’s burgeoning reputation. Cracking stuff.

Review by Tom Leins

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Book Review: Hell Ship by Benedict J. Jones

HELL SHIP

Author: Benedict J. Jones

Publisher: The Sinister Horror Company

Release Date: August 2018

Set in 1944 on the Strait of Malacca – the narrow stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra – Hell Ship follows the fortunes of nine survivors of the torpedoed Empire Carew vessel, adrift and barely alive in a lifeboat. After weeks in the water – surviving on condensed milk and seagull meat – the motley crew find safe haven on the Shinjuku Maru, an abandoned ship they encounter floating in a strange fog. Little do they realise, this ship harbours a grisly secret, which will make the horrors that they have already experienced pale in comparison…

With cinematic pacing and lashings of gore, Hell Ship is a satisfyingly sinister slice of nautical pulp horror. The superb, sadistic prologue – seamen splattered everywhere – sets the tone for the unrelenting sense of dread that follows, and the novella unfolds in an enjoyably gruesome fashion. Jones has fun with the period details, and breathes new life into the familiar cast – which includes the brutally efficient, axe-wielding sailor Busby and the quivering wreck of a commanding officer, Snell.

As the old adage goes, worse things happen at sea. Suffice to say, even worse things happen on the Hell Ship! Great fun.

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Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: The Runner by Paul Heatley

THE RUNNER

Author: Paul Heatley

Publisher: Near To The Knuckle

Release Date: August 2018

Pitched as a prequel/companion piece to the author’s must-read 2016 book, An Eye For An Eye, this brisk, aggressive novella centres on Davey Hoy, a ruthless mid-level dealer who works for Newcastle’s notorious Doyle Family. Hoy’s already short fuse ignites when a bag of his ill-gotten gains is ripped off by Cathy, the girlfriend of his callow associate, Jackson Stobbart. Forced into action, the hapless Jackson sets out to retrieve the loot before Davey realises it is missing – setting in motion a memorably bloody chain of events.

The muscle-bound Davey Hoy is a fantastic antagonist, and his competitive streak and obscure motivations are an early sign that his knife-edge behaviour will spiral out of control as the book unfolds. Like An Eye For An Eye before it, The Runner has a chase dynamic, but the location and characters are entirely different, as the narrative swerves into the small coastal town of Amble. There are some neat call-backs to Heatley’s previous book, and I really hope to see the mythology surrounding the Doyle clan fleshed out further in future instalments.

The Runner is hardcore, dog-eat-dog Geordie noir. I look forward to the next book in the series, Violent By Design, in September!

Review by Tom Leins

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Book Review: Last Year’s Man by Paul D. Brazill

LAST YEAR’S MAN

Author: Paul D. Brazill

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

Release Date: July 2018

After a couple of piss-poor decisions, it’s very clear that trigger-happy middle-aged hit-man Tommy Bennett has outstayed his welcome in London. Fleeing the Big Smoke without his passport, Tommy’s options are sorely limited, and he makes the decision to return home to Seatown – his old stomping ground in the north-east of England. Tommy’s unexpected arrival is less ‘prodigal son returns’ and more ‘unpleasant smell wafts back through open window’, and the old rascal finds himself getting sucked back into a brand-new scam alongside a very old friend.

The rumpled, world-weary triggerman – with a long memory, and an even longer list of health complaints – is a perfect conduit for Brazill’s quirky storytelling style, and the story itself (think Get Carter played for laughs) allows him to play to his strengths. For an expatriate writer, Brazill’s knack for writing about small town English grotesques is pretty damned impressive, and unlike the hapless Bennett, this book is slim and spritely!

If anything, this yarn climaxes prematurely, but I suspect we haven’t seen the last of the incorrigible Mr Bennett. A booze-swilling, bladder-busting, brain-splattering caper. Great fun.

Review by Tom Leins

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Book Review: Sunk Costs by Preston Lang

SUNK COSTS

Author: Preston Lang

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

Release Date: May 2018

Sunk Costs is the story of Dan, a young drifter looking for a ride east. When a strange woman in a business suit picks him up on the highway, he thinks that his luck is in. Before too long, however, she has pulled a gun on him and suckered Dan into participating in an improbable scam to rip off her former employer. Intrigued by the prospect of making some fast money with a little casual deception, Dan throws himself into the woman’s scheme, only to have his head turned by a sultry accountant with an appealing counter-offer – before he even leaves the building!

Sunk Costs is a tightly plotted and satisfyingly duplicitous thriller. Lang’s writing is crisp and clean throughout, with some enjoyably dry one liners, and his style suits the subject matter perfectly. Dan is a great character: a resourceful slacker with few morals, who is seemingly unfazed by anything the increasingly bizarre situation throws up. Plus, he enjoys some nice interplay with his off-kilter partner-in-crime Kate (the aforementioned accountant), as the duo fumble their way through scattered clues in search of their elusive pay-day.

The tone is offbeat, without ever lapsing into madcap, and while their exploits sometimes lack a genuine sense of threat from the other interested parties, Lang has enough surprises up his sleeve to keep you on your toes. If you are looking for a smart, unusual, contemporary con-man caper, then you won’t go far wrong with Sunk Costs.

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Review by Tom Leins