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

 

Book Review: Wonderland (A Spenser Novel) by Ace Atkins

WONDERLAND (A SPENSER NOVEL)

Author: Ace Atkins

Publisher: No Exit Press

Release Date: March 2014

Robert B. Parker may have died in 2010, but Spenser – his most famous creation – continues to live on… Boxing trainer Henry Cimoli and Spenser go way back, but the old man has never had to ask the private eye for a favour – until now. When a shadowy property developer attempts to buy up Henry’s condo on Revere Beach – and sends his thugs to help expedite the process – Spenser and his Native American apprentice Zebulon ‘Z’ Sixkill follow the trail to a charming but dangerous Las Vegas tycoon, only to discover that he isn’t the only person interested in the land. As in all good stories, carnage ensues!

Despite the fine reviews for his Quinn Colson series, I had yet to tackle a book by Ace Atkins – the crime writer selected by the estate of the late Robert B. Parker to continue his iconic Spenser series. Further, while I’ve read a whole bunch of Spenser mysteries over the years, I feel like I’ve read as many unconvincing ones as I have great ones, so this was something of a speculative purchase. Happily, Wonderland was a little cracker!

Whereas I have sometimes found Spenser’s idiosyncrasies off-putting in the past, Atkins weaves the source material into something new and improved. The knockabout tone he recreates is pitch-perfect, and his brand of literary ventriloquism feels like a genuinely affectionate tribute, but the storytelling verve is fresh and exciting. Factor in a slow-burning mystery, a succession of appropriately brutal fight scenes and a heavy-duty dose of emotional clout and you have a genuinely riveting novella. Regardless of your level of Spenser fandom, this bruising PI thriller is well worth checking out!

(Note: after finishing Wonderland I discovered that it is currently being filmed by Peter Berg for Netflix, with Mark Wahlberg in the lead role. The cast list suggests the story will deviate slightly from the novel – with Hawk installed as Spenser’s sidekick, rather than Z – but I’m intrigued nonetheless!)

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney

THE QUAKER

Author: Liam McIlvanney

Publisher: HarperCollins

Release Date: June 2018

Glasgow. 1969. A serial killer known as the Quaker has lured three women from the same nightclub and viciously murdered them. As the police’s laborious investigation drags on, the sense of fear is palpable and the cops are seemingly no closer to establishing the killer’s identity. Enter DI McCormack, a talented young detective who has been dispatched to Glasgow to shut down the botched investigation. Before he can pull the plug on the case, a fourth woman is found dead in a derelict tenement flat and McCormack becomes determined to win over his suspicious colleagues and nail the culprit.

Winner of the 2018 Scottish Crime Book of the Year, The Quaker is a visceral, relentless police procedural that drags the seemingly clean-cut McCormack through the grit and grime of late-60s Glasgow. The seedy atmospherics are utterly convincing and the level of period detail is similarly excellent.

The Quaker is a ferociously entertaining thriller that successfully blends a pungent David Peace-style Red Riding ambience with a dose of Glasgow grit and a genuinely gripping plot. Fantastic stuff.

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Welcome to HolyHell by Math Bird

WELCOME TO HOLYHELL

Author: Math Bird

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

Release Date: October 2018

At the outset of the marvellous Welcome to HolyHell youngster Jay stumbles across a briefcase full of cash – which he believes will change his life forever. Unfortunately for him, the money’s disappearance – and abrupt reappearance – was never going to go unnoticed, and before long a number of dangerous, damaged men are sniffing around – all desperate to get their hands on the loot.

Set in north-east Wales in the scorching summer of 1976, Math Bird has crafted a gripping, nerve-jangling story that is part-thriller, part-coming-of-age tale. The characterisation is nuanced throughout and the book is propelled forward by a crackling undercurrent of menace. When I reviewed Bird’s short story collection Histories of the Dead on this site, I praised its ‘noir sensibility, measured storytelling, sense of place and psychological turmoil’. It was a cracking collection, but this novel is even better, as he seizes on the themes explored in his earlier short fiction and runs with them.

Grubby, authentic and deftly plotted, Welcome to HolyHell is possibly my favourite All Due Respect book to date. With its sweaty explorations of lust, loyalty and small-town violence it would sit comfortably alongside plenty of acclaimed British literary fiction and really deserves to tap into a wider audience. Great stuff.

Buy Now!

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: East of England by Eamonn Griffin

EAST OF ENGLAND

Author: Eamonn Griffin

Publisher: Unbound Digital

Release Date: January 2019

Debt collector Dan Matlock is out of prison, but not quite out of options. He can leave town – and his demons – and start from scratch elsewhere. Or he can go back to where it all went wrong, and pick through the wreckage he left behind. Two years jail time gave him time to plan, not brood. He knows exactly what he wants to do – and who he wants to do it to. However, the extended family of the man whose blood Matlock has on his hands have been plotting their own revenge, and when it comes it won’t be pretty.

After two years behind bars, Matlock is in no rush to enact his grand plan and the narrative unfolds at an unhurried pace. Violence is always around the corner, but in Matlock’s world there is always time for a cup of tea and a slice of cake first! The pace may be a touch slow for some vengeance-hungry readers, but Griffin’s hardnosed, meticulous prose kept me hooked throughout.

Another key strength is the author’s use of location, which feels authentic and unusual: transport cafes, static caravans and cattle markets all feature prominently. The backdrop for the climactic showdown is particularly well-judged, and provides the perfect setting for the long-brewing clash between Matlock and his enemies.

All in all, a gripping slab of Lincolnshire noir peppered with memorably grisly interludes. Impressive stuff.

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

THE BIRDWATCHER

Author: William Shaw

Publisher: RiverRun

Release Date: May 2016

Sergeant William South is a quiet, unassuming man. A solid local policeman and a committed birdwatcher, he appreciates routine and has no interest in working on headline-grabbing cases, such as murders. However, when a neighbour – one of his few friends – is found dead, he is paired with ambitious outsider DS Alexandra Cupidi, who leans on South’s local knowledge. As the case unfolds, and an unexpected lead sucks him deeper into the mystery, South finds himself increasingly unable to outrun his troubled past. Can he track down the killer before the body-count rises, or will his demons swallow him whole?

The Birdwatcher is a fascinating police procedural set on the rain-lashed Kent coast. Reluctant protagonist William South is an unusual central figure, and his grim investigation forces him into a similarly grim personal reckoning – which is teased out via regular flashbacks.

The striking spectre of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station looms over the proceedings in much the same way as South’s murky past continues to cast a long shadow over his life. The blistered-looking otherness of the area is extremely well-rendered, and I particularly enjoyed the depiction of a decrepit caravan park now ruled by an overweight local drug dealer and her vicious dogs.

Interestingly, despite being billed as a standalone, The Birdwatcher has spawned a spin-off series focusing on supporting player DS Cupidi (Salt Lane, Deadland). I look forward to reading more!

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Sins of the Father by Graham Hurley

SINS OF THE FATHER

Author: Graham Hurley

Publisher: Orion

Release Date: 2014

The eponymous patriarch in Sins of the Father is Rupert Moncrieff – a wealthy elderly man murdered in his Topsham mansion. The case falls to DS Jimmy Suttle, a solid cop tormented by the abduction of his own daughter. Suspicion immediately falls on Moncrieff’s adult children, who still live under his roof – each nursing their own festering grudges. But does the murder relate to the dead man’s complicated family life, or is it connected to his twisted past?

And now for something entirely different… whereas most of the books featured on this blog lurk in the murkier depths of the independent crime fiction scene, Sins of the Father is a genuine mainstream proposition. This book was an entirely random second-hand purchase, which hooked me with its reference to ‘a rich old man beaten to death in the silence of his West Country waterside mansion’. Contemporary Devon crime novels are something of a rarity, so my interest was piqued.

Sins of the Father is an engrossing mystery that sees Suttle and his colleagues dragged deep into Moncrieff’s past – as far back as his National Service in Africa. Moncrieff himself is a true grotesque – fascinatingly rendered despite his pre-book demise. Grim details of the decades-old regime of terror waged against his family (and other unfortunates) are teased out by Suttle, and everybody that the detective encounters during the course of his investigation is memorably fleshed-out.

Factor in the quietly devastating parallel storyline involving Suttle’s estranged wife and her search for answers about their daughter’s fate, and you have a fantastic book, and one that packs significant emotional clout. As with the best whodunnits, there are no easy answers, just bitter truths and queasy revelations.

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Bloody January by Alan Parks

BLOODY JANUARY

Author: Alan Parks

Publisher: Canongate

Release Date: December 2017

When a teenage boy shoots a young woman dead – and then commits suicide – Detective Harry McCoy already knows that it wasn’t a random act of violence. With his enthusiastic new partner in tow, McCoy throws himself into the case, only to butt heads with his superior officers, who are suspiciously keen to divert his investigation away from Glasgow’s wealthiest family, the Dunlops. Unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer, McCoy is about to enter a world of pain…

First things first: Bloody January is bloody great! The pungent, enigmatic opening – set in Glasgow’s notorious HMP Barlinnie prison – is about as good a first chapter as I have read in recent years, and sets the tone for a grim trawl across the underbelly of 1970s Glasgow for Harry McCoy. McCoy isn’t a dirty cop, but he’s a man with a tangled history – and unsavoury connections – and he is willing to lean on these in order to further his own career.

I’m one book into the series (a sequel, February’s Son, is out now, and a third book, Billy March Will Live Forever, drops in March 2020) and Parks’ storytelling already has echoes of David Peace’s seminal ‘Red Riding’ quartet – albeit with a more forceful moral code. The seeds for an overarching narrative are definitely sown in this book and I’m sure that McCoy will live to regret some of his actions – and his alliances – in due course.

Bloody January is a book with a defiantly … unreconstructed … sensibility, and Parks serves up a booze-fuelled story of casual violence, dirty sex and 1970s degeneracy for crime readers with strong constitutions. The story is so grubby you will feel like you need to wash your hands after turning the pages – and I read it on a Kindle, so that is really saying something! Highly recommended.

Review by Tom Leins