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

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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

Book Review: Suburban Dick by C.S. DeWildt

SUBURBAN DICK

Author: C.S. DeWildt

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

Release Date: May 2018

Disgraced cop-turned-small town private investigator Gus Harris is a man with meagre expectations. All he wants is enough business to keep his one-man operation afloat and the opportunity to remain a part of his estranged children’s lives. When a pair of distraught parents enlist him to track down their missing son – a promising member of the wrestling team at Horton High School – the assignment taps into Gus’s tenacious side, and puts him on a collision course with the team’s creepy born-again Christian coach, Geoff Hanson, and his ready-made squad of swollen man-child henchmen.

The wonderfully titled Suburban Dick represents something of a curveball after DeWildt’s excellent Kill ‘Em With Kindness (All Due Respect, May 2016) – which was described as ‘a brutally enjoyable slab of small town carnageon this site shortly after its release. If the plot seems tame at first glance, the story is anything but, and there is a truly glorious moment late in the book in which the situation lurches grotesquely out of control!

Despite his numerous faults, the short-tempered Gus is a tremendously likeable protagonist, and you find yourself rooting for him from the start. He may be sloppy – since being kicked out by his wife he sleeps on a fold-out sofa bed in his office – but his love for his family and his moral code shine through. DeWildt does a great job of reconfiguring a potentially clichéd character into fully-realised human being, and Gus actually evolves as the story unfolds.

Suburban Dick is a treat, and I look forward to future instalments, as Gus feels like a character with plenty more mileage in the tank. DeWildt is at his strongest when he is confounding expectations and exploring the seedy underbelly of small town America, and this book does both very well. Great stuff.

Review by Tom Leins

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Book Review: The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

THE FIGHTER

Author: Michael Farris Smith

Publisher: No Exit Press

Release Date: March 2018

Punch-drunk middle-aged bareknuckle fighter Jack Boucher is damaged beyond repair. Too many punches to the skull have scrambled his brain, and now he has to carry around a notebook highlighting which of his scuzzy acquaintances are his friends, and which are his enemies. Abandoned as a child, Boucher was raised by a foster mother, who now resides in a hospice, suffering from dementia. Desperate to protect the family home from repossession, pill-popping Boucher seems destined for one last stint in the cage…

At just over 200 pages, The Fighter is a slight book that packs a ferocious punch. Beautifully written, and utterly absorbing, Farris Smith has crafted an emphatic story about a man pushed to the limits – desperate to claw back a slither of self-respect as he backslides into the abyss.

The creaking Boucher is an impressively ravaged physical specimen – held together by his scar tissue and his conscience – and the supporting players are equally well-judged. Carny runaway Annette and savage local crime boss Big Momma Sweet are among the vividly-drawn characters that populate the book, and both could comfortably carry their own novellas. The Fighter is an excellent book that comes highly recommended.

Review by Tom Leins

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Book Review: The Cyclist by Anthony Neil Smith

THE CYCLIST

Author: Anthony Neil Smith

Publisher: Bastei Entertainment

Release Date: May 2018

Since dropping out of Navy SEAL training, Judd has found himself in a rut. Living alone, and tormented – quite literally – by Burt, his drunken former SEAL trainer, he takes solace in a burgeoning online friendship with a Scottish girl named Catriona, built on their shared obsession with cycling. As their mutual attraction grows, Judd makes the bold decision to fly to Scotland and meet Cat in person, with a view to taking an epic bike trip through the Scottish Highlands, and getting to know each other more intimately. Nothing is quite what it seems, however, and Judd’s dream trip quickly degenerates into a bloody nightmare, as a mysterious lunatic sets his sights on the couple…

With its transatlantic, fish-out-of-water plot, and its nerve-jangling Catfish-meets-Rambo storyline, The Cyclist represents a well-judged lunge towards the mainstream for cult crime novelist Anthony Neil Smith. The principal characters are unusual and well-rendered, and the narrative is satisfyingly twisty throughout. That said, Smith pulls no punches with the grisly violence, which made me wince more than once.

Sometimes The Cyclist feels less like a cat ‘n’ mouse thriller, and more like a visit to a menagerie of maniacs – and that is definitely a good thing! Entertaining stuff.

Review by Tom Leins