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

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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

Book Review: Man Standing Behind by Pablo D’Stair

MAN STANDING BEHIND

Author: Pablo D’Stair

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

Release Date: May 2019 (first published 2011)

At the outset of Man Standing Behind, protagonist Roger is apprehended by a gunman while withdrawing money from a cash-point. It isn’t Roger’s money that the interloper wants, however, it’s his company – and the reluctant Roger soon becomes complicit in a series of seemingly random crimes perpetrated by his new associate. As the night unfolds, the affable gunman takes Roger on a twisted tour of the city, meeting his friends, enemies and lovers. Realising that one wrong move could mean a bullet in the head, Roger chokes down his nausea and accompanies the stranger on his increasingly bloody mission.

I’m sure there are a lot of writers out there who would cut off one of their fingers for a blurb from an author of the stature of Bret Easton Ellis, who has praised Pablo D’Stair’s knack for creating a ‘languid kind of suspense’. Ellis’s name is a slightly misleading indicator, as this book contains little that resembles his own lurid, transgressive storytelling style! That eye-catching blurb is just one of the many oddities that this quirky novella coughs up.

The low-key everyman noir set-up means that Man Standing Behind fits snugly into All Due Respect’s back catalogue, but the existential tone marks it out as something quite different. Unlike a number of ADR books – which hinge on memorable moments of extreme violence – D’Stair seems to purposely bleed the drama out of his major plot points. Significant developments are tossed out casually, in a matter-of-fact tone – so much so that I ended up re-reading passages to check that I hadn’t lost the narrative thread altogether!

Roger’s deteriorating physical and mental wellbeing is convincingly rendered throughout, and while the unbroken, chapter-free style helps to maintain the eye-rubbing nocturnal vibe, the result can be disorientating.

Man Standing Behind is interesting and enigmatic, and D’Stair has a unique way with words, but it didn’t quite hit the spot for me. That said, I’m intrigued by ADR’s planned reissues of D’Stair’s other books in 2020, some of which focus on a petty con artist called Trevor English. I’m not sure whether these other books have the same tone as this one, but a mixture of downbeat existentialism and petty cons could prove to be a potent mix. Consider me intrigued.

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Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Histories of the Dead by Math Bird

HISTORIES OF THE DEAD

Author: Math Bird

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

Release Date: August 2018 (first published November 2016)

Set in the borderlands of northeast Wales – a landscape of forests, hills and ruined small towns, Math Bird’s short story collection Histories of the Dead (which comprises work first published between 2013 and 2016) is a bruising excursion into small-town noir. Bird’s protagonists are a mixture of taciturn tough guys and wide-eyed youngsters, and while revenge figures heavily, it is rarely anyone’s first course of action.

Damaged men with dark secrets may be his stock-in-trade, but the stories don’t follow typical hardboiled narratives, and emotions churn like the River Dee in winter. Admittedly, when slotted in alongside the five longer, anthology-length pieces, the two pieces of flash fiction have less impact, as Bird specialises in cultivating a creeping sense of dread – which builds up slowly in the meatier stories – as he edges the reader towards a grim narrative precipice.

US publisher All Due Respect specialises in lowlife literature, but these stories wouldn’t be out of place in a mainstream contemporary short story collection. They are all undercut with a noir sensibility, but the measured storytelling, sense of place and psychological turmoil suggests a writer not easily pigeonholed.

A cracking short story collection that comes highly recommended.

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Review by Tom Leins

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

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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