Book Review: Tommy Shakes by Rob Pierce


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 sells some kind of Japanese space heater or some shit.

 Buy Stay Ugly!



Book Review: The Bad Kind of Lucky by Matt Phillips


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.

Buy Now!

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: Violent By Design by Paul Heatley


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: The Runner by Paul Heatley


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: The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith


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

Buy from No Exit Press

Book Reviews: A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps + Slaughterhouse Blues by Nick Kolakowski


Author: Nick Kolakowski

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

Release Date: May 2017 + February 2018

At the outset of A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, self-absorbed hustler Bill is on the run from the Rockaway Mob, millions in embezzled cash safely tucked in the trunk of his not-at-all-conspicuous lime-green convertible. Bill is confident he can out-run the handful of undesirables on his trail, but his grand exit strategy hits a major roadblock in the form of a posse of small-town criminals whose initial southern hospitality proves unfortunately short-lived. Happily – for the reader at least – the situation spirals bloodily out of control, and carnage ensues. Follow-up Slaughterhouse Blues picks up the narrative thread, with Bill and (pursuer-turned-lover) Fiona now hunted by sociopathic, well-groomed contract-killers Barbara and Ken! Cue more love, more bullets and more imaginative bloodshed!

With these two novellas Nick Kolakowski cements his position as a contemporary crime writer worthy of further scrutiny. Twisted, amusing and enjoyably violent, these books are a fine advertisement for the Shotgun Honey brand. Rather than risk repeating himself, in Slaughterhouse Blues Kolakowski whisks his protagonists Bill and Fiona off to Cuba and Nicaragua, respectively – furthering the storyline and dragging the characters even further out of their comfort zone. The evocative Latin American locations are convincingly rendered, and give the cat ‘n’ mouse story an extra narrative charge. All in all, a pair of quick, slick crime stories that complement the author’s entertaining body of short fiction.

Buy A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps

Buy Slaughterhouse Blues

Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: May by Marietta Miles


Author: Marietta Miles

Publisher: Down & Out Books

Release Date: January 2018

Troubled May Cosby ekes out a living on the sleepy island of Folly, repairing holiday homes and dealing weed on the side. Struggling to outrun her damaged past, she hunkers down as a destructive nor’easter bears down on her ramshackle home. As the storm approaches, it becomes clear that there are sinister forces at work on the island, and a dark night of the soul awaits…

Route 12 by Marietta Miles was one of my favourite books of 2016, and May provides another welcome jolt of dread-filled small town Americana. The earlier book – which comprised two pitch-perfect novellas – weaved together stunted lives, repressed sexuality and clumsy bursts of violence, to create a gritty compelling package. May – a slow-burner by comparison – explores similar themes, and the writing is as strong as ever.

The book comes into its own during the menacing final third, which sees the various story strands coalesce. Importantly, we get a better look at John Karl, Jr. – a protagonist every bit as nasty as his fictional predecessors, Percy (Route 12) and Pastor Danny Friend (Blood & Sin) – even if his presence is more insidious.

There are a handful of loose ends – not to mention a couple of hideous supporting characters with unfinished business – that make a sequel a seriously appealing proposition. Now that the scene has been set, I’d bet that Marietta Miles raises the stakes next time around – and I hope she goes even darker. Storm-ravaged Folly is not a nice place to be – I’m interested to see how bleak it gets for May!


Review by Tom Leins

Book Review: My Tired Shadow by Joseph Hirsch


Author: Joseph Hirsch

Publisher: Underground Voices

Release Date: November 2017

As a boxer, Ritchie “Redrum” Abruzzi struggled to step out of the shadow of his much-loved world champion father, Ritchie “Bam-Bam” Abruzzi. As a washed-up fighter he has other problems to contend with…

While his reputation remains strong enough to prompt talk of a comeback, there is easier money to be had fighting in high-stakes bare-knuckle matches in run-down parts of LA. Throw in death threats from the son of a man he killed in the ring more than a decade ago, the arrival in town of his own estranged son, and a creepy B-movie director who wants to capitalise on Ritchie’s infamy, and Ritchie’s enforced retirement is about to take some unexpected turns.

My Tired Shadow unfolds in a series of bruising – emotionally and physically – chapters which chart Ritchie’s botched attempt at a comeback, and the mental disintegration that follows. Ritchie is a fully fleshed-out protagonist, well aware of his own deficiencies, but seemingly unable to resist hitting the self-destruct button every time his tentative plans go off the rails.

The combination of fictionalised biography and authentic boxing history is effortlessly done, and the seedy narrative is richly imagined throughout. Crammed with queasy details and mercilessly unsentimental, My Tired Shadow makes for a brutal reading experience. The impressive eye for detail extends to the colourful supporting cast: fight promoters, ruined ex-fighters, B-movie actors and other LA undesirables.

In the final quarter of the book, the story lurches – entirely convincingly – into full-blown noir territory, as Ritchie hatches a wild plan to restore his self-respect and make things right. This is followed by a genuinely unpredictable final act, which sees the narrative come full-circle.

If you are a fan of boxing and lowlife literature, My Tired Shadow comes highly recommended.

My Tired Shadow @ Underground Voices

Review by Tom Leins

The Interrogation Room – An Interview With L.A. Sykes

Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with L.A. Sykes to discuss The Hard Cold Shoulder (Near To The Knuckle).

Your novella The Hard Cold Shoulder was recently re-released by Near To The Knuckle. The book is set in 2013, and the political backdrop adds to the bleak mood.  Were you tempted to tweak the political context for the re-release, to chart the deteriorating social backdrop?

Not at all. In fact, I actually added the date in the text for the re-release. Events like the striking nurses and the sense of betrayal that followed the Liberal Democrats’ essentially treacherous behaviour in the coalition were part of the milieu.

Also, with the population on the increase and Bobbies on the beat on the decrease, there was something uneasy going on in relation to essentially goading public servants, not to mention jeopardising public safety on a significant scale.

I actually went on strike from a psychiatric hospital, and rather than join a picket line I watched the media coverage. His side of the house of commons roared with laughter when David Cameron described nursing staff walking out as a ‘damp squib’, and I thought these people are going to get it at the ballot box; hence Brexit and a Corbyn led Labour Party, a left-wing alternative not seen since the late seventies.

His smug dismissal ended with him crying outside Downing Street, having not realised how alienated the populace had become.

The novella predicts the deterioration, and rather than alter it to chart the deteriorating backdrop I just wanted it to snapshot the time, seen through the eyes of an ex-cop.

Also, the number thirteen stood out, given the historically erroneous although still prevalent superstitious connotation of unluckiness, which fitted to the thirteen chapter structure of the story.

Are politics and crime fiction uneasy bedfellows, or do you believe that crime writers are the very people who should be addressing these issues?

I’ll answer the latter part first: it’s entirely down to the individual writer whether or not they want to address issues, be it politics or anything else. I think crime fiction is the perfect place to address transgression, given society is malleable to political influence. Also, given politics is essentially corruptible, these things go hand in hand.

Take for example the political choice to cut police officers on the beat; the criminal will take full advantage and street level crime will go up. So realistically political decisions have a knock on effect to the criminological. The criminal operates in a societal milieu, whether they choose to think about it or not.

Again it’s up to the writer, I don’t think it’s a should, it’s a can if they choose to, and if they choose to then the crime novel can be the perfect vehicle to reflect a time and a place.

The Hard Cold Shoulder is a defiantly British story. Who are your favourite British writers – past or present? How have they influenced your own writing?

Derek Raymond, reflecting the essence of British noir, writing about the everyman victim, just blazed a trail started by the great Ted Lewis. David Peace, Alan Sillitoe and David Storey immediately also jump to mind. The latter two so-called ‘angry young men’, who showed me you can write about stuff relevant to working class lives, with passion and anger.

Crime-wise, Peace’s Red Riding Quartet has elevated the genre in my opinion. While you can see plain as day the influence of the master himself, James Ellroy, Peace’s British twist and research into the history of the times he writes about is meticulous. Plus with the darkly poetic prose style I honestly think he’s one of the best novelists of our generation in any genre.

Victor Headley’s Yardie novels were great too. They influenced me by writing stories I wanted to read about, rather than cozy mysteries, or whatever, that didn’t get the pulse jumping, they all had edge, and I knew I wanted to write about similar topics. They showed that it was ok to write what you want.

There are many, many others, most importantly the Irish writer Ken Bruen, and lots of American writers, but that’s a different question…

In terms of current UK writers – I hate to start as I’ll forget some – but I’ll go with the likes of Paul Brazill, Gareth Spark, Aidan Thorn, Paul Heatley, yourself, Keith Nixon, Nigel Bird, and plenty of others.

Manchester seems like a city that lends itself to noir fiction – are there any notable works that you would recommend?

Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood, set in 1930’s Salford. It depicts the indignity of unemployment and living conditions in the thirties. It’s not noir, but its setting is one Dave Goodis would have had a field day with.

I suspect there are lots of police procedurals set in Manchester, in particular I like Col Bury’s Jack Striker, but noir fiction wise I don’t know many others apart from Ray Banks’ McInnes series, which is partially set there, and whose work I would definitely recommend.

Do you find yourself gravitating towards independent publishers, or does mainstream crime fiction satisfy your tastes?

To tell you the truth, I find a lot of mainstream fiction too safe, too predictable, and I find myself going back more and more to re-read older stuff. At the end of the day I’m a reader and I like to read good prose and edgy writing, and I definitely find it much more from the independent publishers when looking for newer books.

It seems to me the independent scene is bringing out great stuff that mainstream would not touch because of financial reasons. Les Edgerton’s brilliant The Rapist is a prime example.

There’s a real emphasis on passion for writing that’s shining through. So, I don’t look at the publisher any more, I look at the story and the style, and there is a fantastic amount out there, which is great.

I think that people are starting to wake up to the fact that the big publisher is not a guarantee of better quality than the independent one, and it’s high time that realisation took place.

Which current writers do you consider to be your peers? Any recent books you would care to recommend?

I don’t know how to answer the first part, I’ll leave that to others to decide.

As for books, instead of recent ones, I’d like to recommend A Rage in Harlem and its sequels by Chester Himes. It kicks of the Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones detective series, one of the finest written in my opinion, and I see lots of recommended reads and rarely do I see Himes get a mention, so I’ll go for him.

The Hard Cold Shoulder is a violent book in places. In crime fiction terms, how far is too far?

I think this can easily slip into a censorship debate.

My personal view is that it’s naïve to shy away from the violence of human beings. Fact is, at this moment in time someone somewhere is doing something horrific, and if the violence is repellent, then good, it’s supposed to be. People can pretend bad things don’t happen all they want, but they’re frankly deluding themselves.

To put it plainly, we know repulsive things happen, so why shouldn’t they be written about?

I’m not saying there aren’t lines that shouldn’t be crossed however, I do understand that there are limits, but at the same time to ignore depraved human capabilities rather than expose them means things will never change.

It is a violent book in places like you say, yet regardless of the righteousness of violence, once you cross a line there are often irreparable consequences. I think it shows that too.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans?

I’m currently drafting some longer standalone works which should hopefully see the light of day late next year and just after. Also, I’m working on some more short fiction which I hope will be ready to go throughout the coming months.