Thursday, 28 July 2016

One Man's Opinion: GBH by TED LEWIS

GBH (US) is an assault on the senses.

The protagonist’s life is split into two alternating sections, The Smoke and The Sea.

In The Smoke, we’re in the past. George Fowler is leading a successful and violent criminal gang that makes most of its money peddling porn movies. For Fowler, his cold ruthless wife and close associates, the world is controlled through fear and the perpetration of enough acts of terror to keep that fear alive. Problems arise when it becomes clear that someone in the organisation is no longer playing by the rules. This heightens tensions between Fowler and the other major players in London’s underbelly and their friends of the law enforcement variety. Fowler sets about smoking out the rats from the nest and in doing so risks setting the entire operation ablaze. The story in the city is taught and strained like a muscle pushed to its limits.

The Sea is told in the present tense and has Fowler in hiding in a down-on-its-knees seaside resort. This allows for reflection on what’s been and along with this comes detailed description of the world he inhabits. Having lived through extreme horrors and lost much of what he held dear, he is drinking heavily to find another kind of escape. Though he should find it easy to lie low, he can’t relax. Paranoia engulfs him and he can’t break old habits of trying to fathom exactly what is going on in the world around him. Those he encounters become potential threats and as he tries to work out their motives he slowly tears himself apart.

The tension and pace mean it’s difficult to break away from.

Lewis does an amazing job of creating an environment of menace and perversity without ever really shining a torch directly upon it. The most sinister aspects are told through suggestion, intimidating settings and sharp similes:

‘I strike a match and light the fire. The newsprint crackles like the sound of small bones breaking.’

The finale is held tantalisingly in the near-distance all the time and the way this is done means the appetite for more is always kept alive.

Key to the psychological elements is the empathy engendered for Fowler. Not only is it easy to relate to his plight, it’s also impossible not to root for him in spite of all his dark deals and reign of terror.

This book is a beautiful thing. It’s for writers to learn from and readers to enjoy.

GBH? Great Book Here. 

Friday, 22 July 2016


"Whatever are we to do with you, baby girl? Huh?"
"Kill me, I guess."
"That idea has been said already. Got'ny other ones?"
"Help me. Ain't nobody said that idea yet, have they?"

It might seem odd that when living in surroundings as beautiful as the Ozark hills that Ree Dolly feels the need to escape into visualisations using The Sounds Of Tranquil Shores/Tranquil Streams/Tropical Dawn/Alpine Dusk. It seems odder still given Woodrell’s immense skill at describing her environment and highlights the power and the wonder of the nature around her.

It doesn’t take long, however, to realise that she has every reason to want to switch off her mind to the burdens and the monotony of every-day survival.

The weather is unforgiving. Her dad has gone missing and has skipped bail. Worse still, he has put up the family house and land as security. When it becomes clear that he isn’t going to be showing up in court, Ree’s family face eviction and homelessness. If that weren’t enough, her mother has lost her mind and her two young brothers still have a lot to learn.

Ree sets off to find her father and delves into family business that no one wants to be looked at. The Dolly and Milton clans do their best to discourage her from looking and will stop at nothing to block her way. Unfortunately for Ree, the cocktail of desperation and determination mean that she pushes through each barrier until her own life is in peril.

Winter’s Bone (US) is a wonderful read. The brutality of life is told with no filters with the flair and craft of a real artist. There’s tenderness and affection underpinning the creation of this insane and hostile world. The cultures of the families involved is explored in a way that brings into play the contrasts and contradictions of their world – tradition, love, loyalty and pride sitting alongside violence, drugs and abuse.  

The characters are solid, like monuments of Ozark stone. Their interactions and choices are a delight to follow and their slang and dialogue offer plenty of flavour throughout. They also happen to include one Uncle Teardrop among their ranks, and this guy’s as well-created a villain as you’ll come across, as well as Ree who is so fragile, strong and unstoppable that she makes a perfectly rounded protagonist.

Among the things I love about this one is the way the rhythms and tones flow and drift like a distant song or poem. The plot is always gripping and the cadence locks it down tight. There’s enough here to set it up as a future classic. This is a book that won’t be dying any time soon.


Wednesday, 20 July 2016


'Now didn't seem like the right time to tell Mrs Hunter that the only principle I'd been holding out for was the one called the right price.'

Ways To Die In Glasgow (US) is a terrific read.

Told from multiple points of view, we get to witness events in the lives of a disparate bunch of criminals at a time when they’re struggling to maintain their usual murky equilibrium.

Stepping into their world is Sam Ireland, a brilliant new Private Investigator who manages to fill the PI mould and also to break it. She’s a tenacious woman who is developing the ability to follow her instincts on a case. Sam’s a top class creation, full of spirit and energy while being likeable, fragile and a little bit crazy. As she probes into the case she’s working, she sets in motion a sequence of violence, killings, deals and double deals that spin at top speed like an enormous tornado.

The cast of characters here is superb. Glasgow counts among them and is described with a warmth and touch that could only be done by someone who really knows the city.

The story has a strong energy which maintains the tension from start to finish. Action, threat and brutality are peppered liberally throughout, but there’s also humour and a level of observation that need to be enjoyed and admired.

Great plot, great people, great places, great entertainment and, above all, great writing. Essential reading for lovers of any shade of crime fiction.  

And the really good news? There's another Sam Ireland book due out any time soon. It may not make up for the Brexit fiasco, but it should bring a few welcome hours of distraction from the whole nonsense.