Tuesday, 30 May 2017


Pavlicek was nearly big enough to have his own zip code.

Billy Graves once belonged to a tight-knit group of police officers who ruled the roost in their neighbourhood and used a range of methods to burn through the criminal community. The bonds that were formed in the foundry of their youth are all but unbreakable and still tie them together years after many of them have moved on from the force.

During their time fighting crime with a ruthless zest for justice and control, there were the ones that got away – The Whites (US) of the title – and we meet one of them at Penn Station, stabbed in an early morning attack with no witnesses to tell the tale.

Billy and the gang seem to be on a roll as lots of their whites are meeting their ends, a coincidence that Billy can’t help but look at and try to fathom.

As he tries to put the pieces together, someone out there is threatening the fabric of his world. Threats against his children and incidents with Billy’s father add heat to the situation and Billy knows that whatever is happening, there’s likely to be a messy end arriving any time soon.

The perpetrator of the threats is known to the reader from the off. Milton Ramos has his own crosses to carry. He bears the weight of pain from the murder of his brother and the loss of his wife as he struggles to control his world and hold down his own job as a police officer.

In this novel, Price’s arc is huge. There are thousands of stories here, from tiny vignettes to enormous brush strokes.

As Billy struggles to keep his family safe and tries to understand what is happening to his bunch of blood brothers and sister, he works through regular police work on the night shift. The aftermath of each crime is handled beautifully and each victim or set of survivors is given enough room to nail their life-story to the mast.   

The main loops of plot are engaging enough in themselves, but for me the thrill of the book is the way the relationships are built and studied. The interconnections are pillars that hold the plot up rather than it being the other way round.  Price dissects marriages, friendships and families with subtlety and skill that not many can match.

My own favourite strand in all of the complicated interplay is the relationship between Billy and his father. The dad was a much-respected cop in his day, as well as being a lover of poetry. Nowadays, he’s slowly drifting ever deeper into the world of dementia, but in his lucid moments he illuminates the world with his insights, love and wisdom. These sections alone are well worth the price of entry.

Here’s a brief sketch where Billy looks to seek advice about dealing with colleagues who coloured in outside the lines:

‘Johnson’s partner didn’t say anything?’
‘I can’t say what it’s like now, but back then? You looked the other way. Always.’
‘How about the partner, what happened to him?’
The old man was so long in answering that Billy almost repeated the question.
‘Looking back all those years?’ his father finally said. ‘He could’ve been a better father to his kids, maybe a better husband to his wife, but other than that?’ Looking Billy in the eye now. ‘He sleeps like a rock.’

The Whites is terrific. The emotional draw is powerful and there are times when the prose just sings. It’s dark and dreadful and has strong noir elements. It’s one to knock your socks off if you can spare the time. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

Curing Reader's Block - WANT YOU GONE by CHRIS BROOKMYRE

It was an honour to be asked by the Coastword Festival to host an event with Chris Brookmyre. I was thrilled to be able to accept and a little nervous at the prospect.

Keen to make sure I was able to discuss his most current work, I set about getting hold of the three newest Jack Parlabane novels.

With only a short period time to get through them, I was a little nervous about the task ahead. Normally such an endeavour would be an enjoyable challenge, but I’d been struggling to read for a while and wasn’t sure I could make it.

As part of my introduction on the big day, I announced that I’d been suffering from reader’s block before coming to Chris’s books and also admitted that the novels I’d worked my way through had provided something of a literary enema of sorts. Jack Parlabane's adventures had totally removed whatever had been holding me back. The statement was packed with truth. What Mr Brookmyre had done from me was to allow me to rediscover the pleasure of reading and the delights of being able to escape into the world of fiction whenever I wanted to get away. The books are all page-turning treats and completely rekindled my interest in good stories. My stress levels settled back to normal for a while and I remembered why I should keep books at the forefront of my life. 

The three titles in question are Dead Girl Walking (US), The Black Widow (USand Want You Gone (US).  They work well as standalone books if you feel like dipping in, but complement each other nicely when read back-to-back.

Each has a similar structure. There’s a shocking and enticing opening followed by alternating points of view as the action builds. Jack Parlablane cuts through his investigations in the third person, while first person narratives from the strong female leads allow the newer characters to fully develop and have us hooked as the tension builds.

Brookmyre manages to walk the tightrope of series backstory with excellent balance. There’s enough in there to support a new audience but not so much to detract from the main focus for established fans. 

There are twists aplenty and few of them are at all predictable. The biggest turn of all comes at the end of Black Widow when the denouement impacts upon all that has been before. Chris mentioned at the event that he had always wanted to write a book where the conclusion altered everything, but that when it was reread with all the new facts at hand it would still be 100% consistent. I'm pretty sure that he pulled it off here. 

A quick summary:

Dead Girl Walking - Jack is on his knees. The police are involved and his career is in tatters. He is hired by an old friend to locate the missing singer of a rock band. The band, Savage Earth Heart, are the hottest ticket in Europe and are about to go on a much anticipated tour of the US. With the singer gone, the band's bright future is about to have the plug pulled. Nagging throughout is the bloody opening scene where we know things have gone badly wrong. Jack finds himself running up against some most unsavoury types and his life expectancy drops significantly as the chapters roll. 

Black Widow is an intriguing piece. Where Dead Girl Walking is often a real adventure, this one has more of a slow burn to it. The Black Widow in question has just lost her husband in a motoring accident. Her story is told as the police investigate her and begin to suspect that her part in the death is more than she's letting on. In a previous life, she was known as the acerbic feminist surgeon blogger Bladebitch, a noble soul with a sharp tongue that made her very unpopular. Did she or didn't she? I guess you'll have to read the book to find out.

And Want You Gone? This is the most recent and my favourite of the three. It involves the murky worlds of hacking and blackmail. Jack is forced into a corner as is his underground hacker friend Buzzkill struggles to keep her life together. My reasons for picking this as top of the pile? The Buzzkill character is hard and vulnerable and needs to survive in order to look after a sister with Down's Syndrome. The world of hacking is not only intriguing, but is totally scary. I haven't viewed my computer in the same way since. It's also a story in which we see Jack in his best light. The pacing is perfect and the tension palpable throughout. 

As for the even, Chris did a terrific job of both entertaining and informing the audience in equal measure. For the most part, I simply felt like I was one of the crowd. 

From a writer's point of view, it was helpful to find that the starting point for these stories is usually the twist. If the conclusion is going to have maximum weight, it almost has to be. Chris used the analogy of close magic to explain his next steps. A close magician would never go on stage without having all his tools in place and nor would Chris set about writing a novel of this kind without knowing where everything was or should be. It's a far cry from my seat of the pants stuff, but then maybe that's something I'll have to learn should I step closer to working on stories like these.

So, the event went well, the books are fab and my reading is back in hand. I've just finished The Whites by Richard Price (more soon) and I'm digging in to Dark Hazard by W R Burnett (two more authors who I hope will teach me a thing or two if osmosis has anything to do with it). 

Thanks Chris and thanks Coastword for having me.          

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Mystery and Thriller Sale (May 13th and 14th)

50 Mystery and Thriller titles on offer at only 99p/99c this weekend over here. Why not treat yourself?