All Fall Down by MJ Arlidge.
The ninth DI Helen Grace thriller.
It’s not difficult to see why DI Helen Grace is such a hit with crime readers – unique, an over used term, really does apply to this detective and single minded hardly seems to cover it. This latest in the series is modern and very dark, this is next generation police procedural, fast and hard, brutal and gritty. All Fall Down is a blistering story, it starts with a chilling murder, ends with a desperate chase to save a life and doesn’t pause for breathe in between. This novel is genuinely creepy, a white knuckle ride of a read. Arlidge is a fan of sharp cutting, of short scenes that propel the narrative. There’s a constant sense of menace on the page, and yet, in all the fun there’s plenty of time to get to know Grace and her relationship to the world, her personal life is intriguing. But it all starts with murder:
‘You have one hour to live’
It’s stark but the concept sounds pretty straightforward; a would be killer threatening the victim, only sixty minutes to live, the clock’s ticking. However, it isn’t as simple as that, Arlidge has a twist on the theme and that makes this a much more interesting read, the hunt is more complex from an early deviation in plot. When a young successful man is killed it’s so calculating and meticulously planned that Grace can’t help thinking it’s not over. However, there are few leads to go on and the killer always seems to be one step ahead of the game. It’s not long before the connection to a high profile cold case emerges – a killer that got away.
Justin Lanning is alone in the Redstone Solutions office, it’s 17.58pm, he’s counting down the minutes, two to go to the end of his twelve hour shift. With a bit of luck he can get home before Adam and get a work out in. There’s been a lot of tension between the two of them lately. By 6pm he’s on his way down when the lift dies, no power. He presses the emergency button, there’s nothing to do but wait. Then an unidentified call comes through on his mobile, he assumes it’s the engineer and starts talking about being trapped but initially there’s no reaction at the other end of the line. Then finally a soft voice says;
“You have one hour to live.”
It spooks Justin, he rings Adam, who is initially sceptical, suggesting they meet at home asap so they can figure this out. Justin could ring the police, he’s genuinely scared, but what would he say? Then the lift starts up again. The company limo service is waiting for him as usual, he gets in the car at 18.08pm, Justin presses the intercom and tells the driver to take him home. He starts to relax, then the car drives past his turn off and the driver won’t respond to his instructions to turn the car around…
DI Helen Grace and DS Joseph Hudson, Southampton central major incidents team, are lovers, racing home, he’s desperate to keep up but she has the more powerful bike, grace likes to be pushed but she likes to win. She likes that he’s competitive but is there something more between them? Next morning she’s milling that over when DC Bentham calls, they’ve found a body at a building site. The wallet says Justin Lanning, a name she knows instantly, everyone in Southampton knows it. Lanning was the victim of a school trip kidnapping when he was seventeen. He and four other Duke of Edinburgh Award students were taken by Daniel King, the children were tortured before four of them escaped with their lives but classmate Rachel wood wasn’t so lucky. When Grace talks to Justin’s partner Adam she realises that the phone call he received before dying was the killer, this was organised, planned, almost an execution.
Maxine Pryce, one of the original kidnap victims, is releasing a book about it, could that be connected? Journalist Emelia Garanita’s eyes light up when she finds out who the victim is, she did her best to worm her way into the original kidnap investigation all those years ago. Now the possibility that Daniel king is back, is irresistible. What if he’s intent on finishing what he started? Then a second person gets a phone call…
“You have one hour to live”
All Fall Down is a creepy murder mystery with plenty of twists and misdirection as Arlidge ramps up the tension, the denouement is nail biting. Helen Grace has a complicated personal life which is skilfully woven into the narrative and several of the characters are put through the wringer in this story. The pressure to get a result and the personal tensions in the team are palpable.
This is a police procedural for fans of the genre who want something up to the minute – a page turner. Arlidge has worked in television, this story and character would make a great series.
Orion hardback 11/6/20 ISBN 9781409188407

CRIME ROUND UP: personal selection

Crime Reads Roundup.
Three books I recommend from my personal reading in May:

This Poison Will Remain Fred Vargas.

This is the ninth Inspector Adamsberg mystery and I’m pretty sure hell will freeze over before I get tired of this original and inventive crime series – subversive, surreal and very French. The term left field was invented for Vargas’s fiction. Adamsberg is (tongue in cheek) Sherlockian and the cases are just bizarre. Here we have murder by spider, or do we? Adamsberg’s department specialise in the weird and wonderful that perplex other police departments. In fact Adamsberg has a nose for a case where no one else even realises a crime has been committed. For all the humour these novels are thrilling and totally intriguing.
Vargas couldn’t wrote a boring line to save her life and, honestly, if she decided to publish her shopping lists I’d probably take a gander, I am the proverbial converted, but I dare you to read this book and not have fun with the strangeness, the quirky darkness, the game afoot – all delivered with wit and aplomb.
The death of three old men barely raises an eyebrow, even the fact that it is put down to spider bites from a typically non-deadly species doesn’t really register with the authorities. But first, Adamsberg is recalled from a holiday in Iceland to deliver the judgement of Solomon. To decide whether her husband or her lover, (he denies knowing the victim), are responsible for the murder for a Parisian woman. Adamsberg will define the truth but he soon becomes distracted by the demise of the old men. He has a theory but his team take some convincing that a diabolically clever serial killer is at work. The investigation leads to La Miséricorde orphanage in southern France and long buried resentments. The mystery is satisfying but spending time with Adamsberg and his team is just a joyous experience. Don’t believe me? Here’s Ann Cleeves:
‘I so enjoyed This poison Will Remain. Real vintage Vargas: playful, thought-provoking, a total delight.’
Harvill Secker out in hardback, paperback August.

Nunslinger Stark Holborn

Still in the realm of humour and comic thrills but Holborn transports us back in time to the Wild West. I was fascinated by Max Jakubowski’s review of Starks’s new novel Triggernometry ‘Highly Recommended’ on Crime Time,

I was reminded I have Holborn’s 2014 novel Nunslinger is sitting on my shelves. Nunslinger is not quite as radical as Triggernometry sounds but this is nonetheless a rip-roaring ride across the dusty plains of the wild west with every kind of shoot up you can imagine and plenty of twists you can’t see coming. Nunslinger is the complete collection, all twelve volumes, six hundred plus action packed pages; chills, thrills and spills. It’s a fantastic piece of story telling that just grips. Inventive, subversive and riotously good.

Sister Thomas Josephine of St. Louis, Missouri is making the trek across the West to Sacramento, California. Her wagon train has been attacked. Next day as Sister Thomas Josephine opens her eyes she sees a beautiful face with piercing blue eyes and long flowing hair staring at her, in her delirium she mistakes the stranger/rescuer for our Lord.
‘Since I happen to be a Bride of Christ, this presented itself as no small matter.’
Her party were attacked at dawn, the men slaughtered, the horses stolen and the wagons fired. Only eight of them survived, four army wives, a widow, a boy, a man who looked like a prospector and a nun. Her saviour, not “Our Saviour”, is actually first lieutenant Theodore F. Carthy of the US cavalry. It was a day after the attack that the troop of soldiers spotted the smoke and came to the belated rescue. Fort Laramie is four days ride but as they set out Carthy recognises the surviving man as a deserter, before he can be arrested Abraham C Wood take Sister Thomas Josephine, the narrator, hostage. Wood is a desperado, with not the slightest qualm harming a nun and threating her if the soldiers follow their escape. The new pairing ride up a dangerous path to a ridge. The nun eager to get back to her saviour but Abe Wood warns of the man – he ain’t all he seems, don’t let them looks fool you. In the morning she finds a stone to serve as an alter for prayer. ‘Mourning sister’, Wood quips, it’s a Sioux shrine. I thought to read this book in volumes (50 page blocks) but the ending to volume one was so good I had to go on.
The inversion of characters is superb, and who could resist a gun toting nun? Rammed with action; massacres, frame-ups, duplicity, revenge, a jaunt to Mexico, murder, misunderstanding, a posse and a hunt for a nun with a price on her head. Stylish and captivating – very, very, very loosely based on some real events, I wonder if this comes from the same origins as Two Mules for Sister Sara? (Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, 1970).

Hodder and Stoughton paperback, 2014.

And, as they say, last but not least:

Broken Don Winslow

Winslow is a consummate storyteller. Everything he writes is imbued with an emotional intensity that haunts the reader long after finishing the book. He understands and gets people. He has an unerring nerve when it comes to unearthing dark human stories and a respect for the honest men and women doing dangerous jobs in law enforcement. His blockbuster stories are magnificent in so many ways, breath-taking reads. With Broken he proves he can handle shorter fiction too. There are six novellas here that recreate the tension and passion of the blockbusters.


“You ain’t gotta tell Eva the world is a broken place.”

Eva McNabb is a New Orleans 911 despatcher so she’s familiar with every kind of crime, every kind of pain, every kind of brokenness. She sends her ‘boys’, and girls, out to the broken places. She wife to a cop, and the mother of two serving officers.
Jimmy McNabb eyes the river, dirty river, dirty town, he loves it. He was brought up in Irish Channel. He’s tough like his dad, Big John McNabb, he loves adrenalin. Now he’s in an unmarked van in a car park on the First Street Wharf with his team, all tooled up. SWAT and Harbor police are excluded from this one. The team is ready, Wilmer is a Honduran, the target is Honduran, a cargo boat. Oscar Diaz is bringing in large quantities of methamphetamines. Let the good times roll.
Eva gets a domestic violence call, she knows all about DV, she tells the kid to get to safety, puts the call out, hears the sirens and then the shot…

The San Diego Zoo

‘No one knows how the chimp got the revolver only that it’s a problem.’

When Chris Shea gets the call to attend he tells them to get Animal Control. The problem is the chimp appears to be armed, Chris thinks a stick but we’re talking revolver. He’s on Prado right in Central Division territory, he as to attend. When Chris arrives Grasskopf is shouting at the chimp to drop the weapon and come down…


Duke Kasnmajian is on the house deck overlooking the beach. The sand is no good for a guy who weighs 287lbs, has dodgy knees, and is the wrong side of retirement age. On the plus side he’s got a mean taste in jazz, on the flip side he smokes cigars and drinks and no heart attack or doctor is going to stop him. Don’t be fooled by the kindly looks, this man is a predator, a bail bondsman.

‘You take off on one of the Duke’s bonds, he’ll track you until he finds you or one of you dies.’

This collection is entertaining, varied, stylish, and gritty, a wry humour underpins the stories. This is an homage to noir and hardboiled – vengeance, loss, corruption, betrayal, guilt, atonement. Set across the states, heroes and villains in all manner. Broken sees a master at work.

Harper Collins, out in hardback now


Blood Red City by Rod Reynolds.
Rod Reynolds first UK set thriller is a proper page turner with a really intriguing opening. Blood Red City is about an investigative journalist falling foul of some very nasty villains as her investigation into a possible murder stumbles across a sinister financial conspiracy. Lydia Wright finds herself following leads that take her deep into the underbelly of the City of London money world. The story is instantly engaging and there’s plenty of jeopardy and edgy action to follow, but the sense that something even darker is just around the corner pervades the atmosphere of the novel. Blood Red City is topical, right up to the minute; modern London and the newspaper and finance worlds are deftly realised, Reynolds has an eye for telling detail. He also knows how to throw a curve ball at the reader and how to mask the denouement along the way. The story reminded me of something I read a few years ago:
‘The financial services industry based in the City of London facilitates a system that makes the UK the most corrupt nation in the world, the anti-mafia journalist Roberto Saviano said at the Hay festival.’ [From an article by Dan Carrier, Guardian, 29/5/16]
Saviano knows a thing or two about money trails and that’s the territory Reynolds takes us into in Blood Red City, London is awash with dirty money. This novel is a half a world and several decades away from the author’s earlier work. Rod Reynolds’ debut The Dark Inside was a very convincing noir set in Texarkana, America in 1946. It is based on the moonlight murders, an unsolved series of crimes that still haunts the community there today. Reynolds deftly weaves the story of his fictional journalist/investigator, Charlie Yates, into the real history. Two more very entertaining and authentic feeling Yates novels followed, well worth checking out if you are a fan of Americana or noir crime stories. Blood Red City is his first novel for Orenda, set in the present and it is very different in style and pace but still has the same narrative energy. Once again there’s a journalist at the heart of the action, a pleasant release from the usual police procedural model. Actually, Blood Red City is quite hard to define, it straddles a few sub-genres with ease, part financial thriller, part chase/adventure drama, part proto-detective tale. Make your own mind up:
The shadow of Grenfell still hangs over London but not for the party goers at the Consolidated News Media bash at the low-fi roof bar in Elephant and Castle tonight. Journalist, Lydia Wright has popped in to be seen, just to remind everyone she’s still with the paper, then she has to head off for her lone graveyard shift; celebrity news, back up for the showbiz team, American updates. Lydia still wants to be an investigative journalist but management demoted her for not spiking a story about corruption at City Hall. If to wasn’t for the money she’d kiss this job goodbye.
Lydia gets an anonymous email with a plea to watch the attached video, curiosity aroused she takes a look. It shows two men confronting another guy on a tube train. Suddenly one of the men punches the victim in the face, he falls to the floor, when he tries to get up the other man wades in. They hold the victim down, tape his mouth, and choke the life out of him. The victim convulses and bucks but he’s held firm, life draining away. When it’s done the killers spot a woman who has filmed what happened on her mobile phone. She runs, the footage is put up online.
Lydia gets a call from old friend Tammy, she sent the video clip. Tammy previously lost her job on the paper, she thinks this is the story that will get her back in the door and she wants Lydia to break it with her. They need to go carefully though, this all happened earlier tonight on the Northern line.
Michael Stringer is a fixer but this is the first time he’s worked for a killer. Ukrainian financier, Andriy Suslov is in that class of immigrant welcomed with open arms by the City, (lots of money so it doesn’t matter where it or he came from, there aren’t too many questions asked about foreign financiers with big wallets). Suslov wants Stringer to find dirt on Jamie Tan, a high flyer in the city. Stringer has been following Tan but tonight he’s gone missing.
Lydia investigates the crime scene. Nobody saw a thing, there’s no CCTV and no report of a violent assault. Could this be a prank? Fake news, a nonstory. The online video has been taken down and the witness is nowhere to be found. Is Lydia hunting for a body that doesn’t exist? Then a suspicious phone call makes her believe but it also spooks her. Lydia and her friend Tammy have no idea just how dangerous this investigation is about to get. Michael Stringer and Lydia Wright are about to cross paths.
Reynolds has a feel for his characters, it’s easy to believe in Lydia, a strong but flawed protagonist, Blood Red City is well researched, down to small throw away details that just add a touch of authenticity to the background. The conspiracy aspect of the story isn’t as dark and all pervasive as I would have liked personally but I think that’s a matter of style not quality. This is an exciting thriller, the chase across London to find answers, witnesses, and a body, is full on. Reynolds is a very good writer, now demonstrating his versatility. Fans of Holly Watt will love this tale.
Orenda Books, paperback, 9781913193249, 11/6/20


photographer: Frank Martin

ALAN WILLIAMS: An Appreciation.
Born 28/8/1935, Died 21/4/2020.

“…Williams has fallen out of favour. But Alan Williams is among the most impressive in what might be called the Graham Greene/Eric Ambler school of ‘Englishman at bay and sultry climes’.” [Barry Forshaw British Crime Writing An Encyclopedia, 2009]

Alan Williams who died in April at the age of eighty-four was the son of playwright/actor Emlyn Williams, (The Corn Is Green/Night Must Fall), his godfather was Noël Coward. Following a youth conference in 1955 Williams smuggled a student out of Poland at considerable personal risk. A year later, while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, he witnessed the Hungarian Revolution at first hand. Thereafter Williams made a point of being in the thick of it. He began his journalism career at The Western Mail in South Wales before moving briefly to the Manchester Guardian and then on to The Daily Express, covering the Algerian War, the Vietnam War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Mozambique, Northern Ireland et al as a foreign correspondent. Rumour has it he enjoyed the suspicion of the journalist/spy nexus that follow the international hack. There’s a story that he smuggled Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward out of Czechoslovakia, which was then published in Russian and English by Bodley Head.
Williams first novel Long Run South, (1962), was well received, winning the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize. A young disillusioned Englishman, Rupert Quinn, is kicking his heels in Morocco as the Algerian rages across the border. He unwittingly becomes involved in smuggling arms to the Algerian rebels before falling for Leila, a liaison officer for the anti-government forces. This is an unusually upfront novel for the time, no ordinary adventure story, the violence is brutal, and Williams has a firm grasp of the local politics. Books and Bookmen described Williams as a ‘natural successor to Ian Fleming’ but his work is much more grounded, the subject matter grittier and his characters more morally ambiguous and, therefore, real.
Barbouze, (1963), allowed Williams to continue to develop his distinctly literary and flamboyant writing style. This novel introduced Charles Pol, a newsman on holiday who becomes embroiled in the vicious conflict between North African Nationalists and the French. The novel drew comparisons with Greene and Ambler. Snake Water, (1965), deals in a well worn theme; a jungle setting, a fortune in diamonds and squabbling rivals, a la any number of lesser writers of adventure stories, Williams brought a fresh take to the idea. A comedy film version entitled, Pink Jungle, starring James Garner, Eva Renzi and George Kennedy was a flop, (Williams hated it, I’ve never seen it). Not all his novels were a critical success, one notable failure being a satire on Mary Whitehouse and censorship, The Purity League, (1968), while it’s motives were laudable it was also dull. The Tale of the Lazy Dog, (1970), a high octane heist thriller set in southeast Asia was widely praised as a real return to form.
The Beria Papers (1973) said to have been envisaged as a hoax before the Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes affair broke was subsequently written as a novel. Based on the idea that Stalin’s chief of secret police, Beria, a sadist, child rapist and mass murderer, left a diary behind that sparked a deadly hunt. It was an inventive thriller melding fact and fiction to great effect, HRF Keating described it as having an ‘authentic feel’. Robert Harris went on to explore a similar theme with Stalin in his 2008 novel, Archangel.
Williams met a drunken Kim Philby in a hotel bar the day before he disappeared from Beirut (23/1/63). Philby became the subject of his 1975 novel Gentleman Traitor, (Ted Allbeury and others have since written fictional accounts of the notorious spy). The fictional Philby comes back to work for MI6 after returning from Russia, the plot set in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). John Gardner said that The Beria Papers and Gentleman Traitor ‘were both ahead of their time’. The Widow’s War 1978, Dead Secrets 1980 and Holy of Holies 1981, followed. Eventually Williams writing dried up, by the late eighties his crime writing career was over, a handful of failed film projects never got off the ground. Long out of print the Charles Pol novels are now available as eBooks and some as Paperbacks. Last word to Barry Forshaw:
“…those willing to seek out his work will find that Williams is a writer whose accomplishments are varied and considerable.”


Deep as Death by Katja Ivar.
The second Hella Mauzer thriller.
“What Hella doesn’t realise, until it’s too late, is that the most dangerous of lies are those we tell ourselves.”
That little teaser for Deep as Death comes from an interview I did with Katja on the publication of her debut, Evil Things, (January last year, see the link). Now I’ve read the new book I understand exactly what she was hinting at, this deadly mystery gets very personal for Hella Mauzer.
Evil Things was an impressive and exciting first novel. Set in Lapland in 1952 it plumbed the depths of the Cold War and it was obvious that detective creation Hella Mauzer would be one to follow. In that novel Hella had recently moved to Ivalo in Lapland from Helsinki, where she had been the first woman in the homicide squad. Hella was the only Ivalo detective who cared about the disappearance of Erno, a Skolt Sami from a small village, Käärmela. Following her instincts leads to some very dark secrets. As winter closes in and the region will soon be cut off by the weather, Hella has to head north for answers but the real danger is not the snow it’s very human.
Often the second novel is more telling than the first, just so here. The impressive debut augured well but Deep as Death shows that Ivar to be an inventive storyteller with ideas in her armoury and her psychological portrait of Hella Mauzer is both subtle and fascinating. Hella has something of Ivar’s grandmother about her, she became a doctor in a man’s world:
“She never doubted that she could be as good as any man…”
Hella is intelligent and strong, although that is tempered by the kind of blindness we all have to problems in our personal lives, she is highly competent, also a bit stubborn. I might have been tempted to call her as a rebel but as I read Deep as Death I realised that it’s not so much that as the fact that ‘she is who she is’, it’s in her DNA to be herself regardless. Hella is a woman who doesn’t consider that she is any less valuable or useful as a detective than any of the men. In fact she’s better for not carrying some of the prejudices they have, and that’s particularly important in this investigation of the death of a prostitute. Hella won’t be bound by patriarchal norms; ‘be a good housewife’, ‘speak when spoken to’, ‘this is no job for a woman’. She’s not a pioneer because she’s fighting a cause, she a pioneer because she’s a natural detective, it’s her. The misogyny of the age is a reflection on society’s failings which her personal driving force is in conflict with. The setting, both the local colour and character and this deeper pervading sexism and patriarchal tradition are perfectly realised.
To course, plenty of very good women writers are creating superb female leads but the combination of background, period, location and extraordinary dynamic character arc make Hella special. At the opening of Evil Things Hella is already leaving the capital city’s homicide squad, by the opening of Deep as Death she’s lost her job as a police officer in Ivalo and is back in Helsinki operating as a private eye, (developments that might take several novels in another writer’s hands happen between two books here). Possibly partly attributable to the fact that Evil Things was originally written as a stand alone, however it came about it’s exhilarating.
Prologue 1935. ‘whore’. A terrified woman makes a dash across a frozen lake knowing how dangerous it is but her pursuer shouts after her:
“You’re dead, Lara.”
She deserted the boy, she’s not thinking straight, she hopes the ice will hold…
February, 1953, Helsinki. Hella’s in trouble again, being sued in civil court by a man she injured while a police officer in Ivalo. It was self defence, this trial is a farce, she was doing her duty. The judge is only capable of seeing a woman who was in a man’s room late at night at a logging camp in Lapland, essentially implying Hella was asking for it, ‘What did she expect?’ The judge awards the man damages.
Hella left the Ivalo police, for ‘insubordination’ read trying to do some real police work. Now she’s back in Helsinki, and if losing her job and the judgement going against her weren’t bad enough, long term lover Steve just left her after four years. Hella has set up as a private detective, she’s in desperate need of money when madame Klara Nyland turns up, one of her girls is dead. Chief inspector Jokela is amusing himself by passing the case on to Hella, homicide can’t be bothered the death of a prostitute. The body of Nellie Ritvanen washed up in the harbour, Nyland doesn’t think it was an accident. She asks Hella to find the killer, for which she’ll pay. Turns out Nellie was three months pregnant and there are other findings from the autopsy the police are ignoring:
“…he said he’d look into it. But let’s face it, Hella. That guy is building a career. Investigating a prostitute’s death, it’s a lot of hassle for very little reward.”
Hella finds Anita, the police receptionist from Ivalo, on her doorstep, come to live with her for a few months. Suddenly inspector Mustonen takes a keen interest in Hella’s case. Things are about to get very nasty investigating the case.
If anything Deep as Death impressed me more than Evil Things, it’s dark, moody and chilling, I can’t wait for more…
Bitter Lemon Press paperback, June 2020, ISBN 9781912242306.
Interview with Katja Ivar: Jan, 2019.


The Underbelly by Gary Phillips (2010)

LA author Gary Phillips writes engaging and thought provoking sci-fi and crime fiction in different forms; long and short stories, graphic novels and comics. He also likes to experiment with storytelling forms and often edits and collaborates on anthologies. He’s a born storyteller and his writing comes from the heart. He’s a voice for those who rarely get a platform and so is always socially aware, political and relevant.
Phillips’s crime writing is radical but also part of a long tradition. The Underbelly is imbued with the spirit of hardboiled, (more Hammett than Chandler). Phillips also cites the writing of Richard Wright and Rod Serling as key influences but he has his own distinctive voice. He has written several crime novels with a political edge, The Underbelly is my favourite, it’s a fine modern crime novel by any measure.
The Underbelly grips from the opening scene through the satisfyingly dark denouement. Page one puts the reader in the middle of a knife fight, these are mean unforgiving streets but the most dangerous criminals in this novel don’t live in this part of town. One of the things I like most about this novel is that it’s not going where you might think from the early action and the initial set up. The Underbelly is about the collision of two worlds; the marginalised versus the rich and powerful – this is about the gentrification of Los Angeles that squeezes the existing community out, neither the money men or the authorities care where they go. Is this progress? I guess your opinion might depend on whether you’re rich and looking to make a $ or whether it’s your home about to be taken from you as part of a new colonization.
The Underbelly is a tight noir, action packed and full of black humour.
It all starts with Wall Street – no, not that one, this one is in central Los Angeles:
“Unlike the street’s more notorious incarnation in Manhattan, the West Coast version didn’t boast of edifices and testament to giddy capitalism. The bailout around here was of the cheap whiskey and crack rock variety, the meltdown a daily occurrence.”
Savoirfaire is a young and cocky gangster, the guy who’s comes looking for him is Magrady, a Vietnam vet, long in the tooth and wily. It doesn’t occur to the young man that weather beaten Magrady can back up what he’s saying if he needs to. Magrady tells Savoirfaire to take Floyd Chambers off his loan book, no more leans on the disabled man’s social security cheques. Savoirfaire thinks Magrady is muscling in on his loan sharking business, he can’t comprehend the idea of looking out for a neighbour. He fetches a knife from his car and comes at Magrady. Magrady kicks his ass before slashing one of the tyres on savoirfaire’s shiny Escalade. He’s been warned.
Janis Bonilla, community adviser for Urban Advocacy, is planning a demonstration at City Hall over the Emerald Shoals redevelopment plan, she’s been trying to get Magrady to come on board as an organiser. Like a lot of vets, Magrady is often homeless, though he has a bed in a garage at the moment.
A couple of days later Magrady is picked up. LAPD Captain Loren Stover fancies him for the murder of Jeff Currey aka Savoirfaire. Someone smashed his skull in with a heavy duty pry bar in Ladera Heights. Stover and Magrady have history from Vietnam and the cop is holding a grudge, at the moment there isn’t enough evidence for the charge to stick so Magrady is released.
Chambers, has gone missing in the meantime. It’s unlikely a man in a wheel chair did Savoirfaire in but Magrady wants to be sure. He searches Chambers place and finds a connection to SubbaKhan, the company that did the environmental impact report on the Emerald Shoals Scheme.
The only way Magrady can get clear of Savoirfaire’s murder is to find Chambers, the connection to Emerald Shoals and who killed Savoirfaire. My everyone wants him asking questions and Captain Stover has just made him homeless. It’s about to kick off.
The Underbelly deals with the plight of vets, and the community being bulldozed by the developers with the connivance of the police. This novel will make readers angry at the way people are treated but while it sympathises with the dispossessed it’s not a book that feels sorry for it’s characters, there’s a lot of dignity and spirit in this community. There is a great deal of humour here too, the scene where Magrady tucks up in a ball and gets the sympathy of the crowd when he is attacked by a thug will make you laugh. It’s entertaining but hard edged – no bullshit!
There are some illustrative woodcuts and photos to accompany the text and an extensive interview with the author, which is a nice bonus. Phillips says:
“If I want a polemic I’ll read non-fiction….if you’re going to tell a story, it should have characters that resonate with the reader and have a plot and structure that is not just an excuse to go on forever.”
This story has characters that resonate. Mulgrew Magrady is a wickedly good hero, a vet who stands up for what he thinks is right, a black man screwed by the system who still has his dignity and smarts. He won’t go down without a fight.
‘But sometimes the bad guy wins. What kind of morality is that?’ [interviewer]
‘Maybe that’s the hard truth, the real truth that life teaches us. When there are ambiguous endings or the bad guy wins.’

The Underbelly is an attack on rampant capitalism and a damn fine thriller. Ticks all the boxes.
9781604862065 pbk PM Press

Gary Phillips


The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes (1959)

Chester Himes’ writing has earned him a place in the pantheon of crime fiction greats. He got there the hard way – living every inch of the pain and prejudice his novels deal in. So why isn’t he better recognised for his contribution to the genre? After all Himes is a masters of the art, same as Hammett, same as Chandler. He isn’t a very good black writer, he’s simply a very good writer, but his themes of racism, institutional indifference and corruption still make some people uncomfortable. Would that his novels didnt feel so relevant today but they do because not enough has changed for the better and somethings are getting worse. I can only conclude that racism, overt and unconscious, is a big part of the reason he’s not given due respect, (something several commentators concur with).

There is no doubt that racism was a defining issue for Himes, something he faced for most of his life, he was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1909 and died in Spain in 1984. After misbehaving as a boy Himes was excluded from a school science demonstration with his older brother Joseph by his strict mother. Tragically, Joseph was blinded by an explosion during the experiment, but the child was refused treatment under Jim Crow laws at the local white hospital. Himes:
“A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby. My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol.”
In 1928 Himes was brutally beaten when arrested for a serious crime, an armed robbery, he got a twenty-five year sentence at the Ohio State Penitentiary. Naturally his scepticism of the law and policing was exacerbated by this incident and the abuse of power became a constant theme of his fiction. There’s an edgy cynicism and a healthy lack of respect for authority and it’s hypocrisy in his work. Himes started writing in prison, he gained a reputation through short stories in magazines before eventually publishing a novel. He was finally released in 1936. By the 1940s he was working as a script writer when his novel If He Hollers Let Him Go was published.
“Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the south, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate.”
He moved to France in the 1950s and lived out his life in Europe, in Paris he was finally respected and lauded for his work. Himes wrote a two volume autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1973) and My Life of Absurdity (1976), and there is a fantastic biography by JamesSallis Chester Himes A Life (2002).
A Rage in Harlem (1957) introduces the Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed (Johnson) series that ran for more than a decade. In The Real Cool Killers a white man, Ulysses Galen, is ‘slumming it’ in the black district of Harlem when he is attacked by a black man with a knife in a bar. Galen flees for his life tripping over a drunk in the process. The angry drunk, Pickens, chases Galen shooting at him as they run down the street. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones arrest Pickens when they find Galen shot to death, this is a slam dunk case for detectives. But Pickens is rescued from the cops by a street gang, the Real Cool Moslems, (a kids street gang with false beards). However, when they investigate the detectives discover that Pickens’ gun is a theatrical prop, it only fires blanks, so it’s obviously not the murder weapon. Something else is going on here but they still need to find Pickens if they are going to get to the real killer…
The Real Cool Killers is a street wise novel of immense power, there’s a seething anger at the outrageous racism and corruption in Harlem. The dialogue, setting and characters all seem to fit time and place perfectly. Naturally these policemen aren’t heroes, they are hypocrites, they abhor violence unless it’s something they are inflicting themselves. So their claim to the moral high ground is highly dubious as they bemoan the drop in societal standards and lack of respect for the police. They profess a belief in God and justice but what do they really represent?
Lots of violence and sex, gritty realism, wit and street savvy. This is a chaotic world where justice is a nebulous concept, injustice a constant. You feel for the characters, get angry and indignant at their treatment, that’s how you know this fiction works.
Penguin Classics 9780141196480 pbk


Virgin & Child Maggie Hamand.
This novel opens with the first walk about of a newly elected pope. Pope Patrick is the first Irish Bishop of Rome, he arrives in a time of turmoil within the Church. His outlook gives some measure of hope to progressives while worrying conservative elements of the Vatican Curia. However, Pope Patrick is about to discover a secret that has the power to shake the very foundations of Catholic faith.
Often when novels speak of a secret that will blow the reader’s mind it leads to anti-climax, not so here, Maggie Hamand really does present us with a devastating and shocking secret. A scenario that highlights the difficulty of modern theological thinking in a rapidly developing scientific world.
This is a novel deserving of wide public attention, it’s both thought provoking and hugely entertaining. Virgin & Child addresses some weighty themes but the novel is very accessible and while it never takes its subject lightly there’s plenty of humour and thrills here. I was surprised a couple of years ago by how gripping Robert Harris’s Conclave was, Virgin & Child also demonstrates that a novel set in the high echelons of the Vatican can be both compassionate to the ideas of faith, the faithful and a belief in God and yet subversive and interrogative.
Virgin & Child is undoubtedly a literary novel, this is an exploration of faith and religion in the modern world. It’s philosophical and theological themes revolve around the patriarchal mind-set, the Church and societal attitudes to gender politics, (the role of women, fertility and sexuality).
Ask yourself, what would shake your faith? How devastating would a revelation have to be to cause you re-examine your fundamental understanding of the world and your beliefs? Of course, it isn’t necessary to believe in God to consider this; imagine the scientific tenets that underpin your life crumbling. The secret at the heart of Virgin & Child causes Pope Patrick and the inner circle of Vatican power to feel the world has tilted from its axis. As to the secret, each reader needs to come to it for themselves, first reactions are crucial. Be open minded, this is not an attack on faith but it questions outdated values, beaurcracy, and patriarchy. The novel is not flip with faith, the point is not whether you accept the interpretation or even the premise, but whether you engage with it. Surely, a faith that can’t stand criticism or examination is no faith at all?
‘You said you’d listen.’ [Siobhan to Pope Patrick]
On the Feast of the Annunciation Pope Patrick greets the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. People shout his name, protestors are being kept at a distance. Patrick sees a mother holding up a baby and he takes the child, kissing it’s forehead, realising he doesn’t have a free hand for a blessing. Everyone seems distracted by this beautiful moment, Patrick hands the child to a guard, the mother is temporarily lost in the crowd, it’s an overwhelming atmosphere. Then a woman bursts free and head towards Patrick, she is snarling, hurling herself forward to attack him. In the struggle he can’t help but strike her back, eventually his guards restrain her. Pope Patrick is shaken and bleeding, the public audience is abandoned. The woman had called him a ‘murderer’, why?
In the Pope’s private quarters the inquest starts. Fr. Alfonso, Second Private Secretary and Cardinal Secretary of State Romano, want to review security and check the woman has no terrorist links. The Inspector General of the Vatican Gendarmerie, Pietro Giordano, wonders if they should hand the woman over to the Italian police, (she must be punished to avoid setting a terrible precedent). Pope Patrick is sure this is all an over reaction, he wants to return to his usual schedule as soon as possible. He takes a miniature whiskey bottle from his pocket, a gift from a well wisher:
‘Holy father that is not safe!’ Alfonso said. ‘It has not been screened. Something could have been in it.’
Patrick found himself smiling again. ‘Father Alfonso, it is quite alright, there is no danger. It was given to me by an Irish woman, not a cardinal.’

The demonstration the woman sprang from is about women’s rights, abortion rights. The Pope’s election received positive coverage everywhere except the Irish Times. A recent change in the law in his own country allowed abortion in certain circumstances but shortly before the legislations was enacted a young married woman died unable to have the abortion that would have saved her life. The Church’s view is clear, the Second Vatican council declared abortion ‘an unspeakable crime’, (1962-65).
Pope Patrick is a reformer in the making, he wants to modernise the Curia, restructure the Vatican bank, reduce the influence of extreme conservatism, and deal with the sex abuse scandal – shake things up. First he has to find out why the woman called him a murderer. Siobhan is a County Mayo Connelly, a friend of the woman who died, (50,000 women a year die during illegal abortions):
‘Many of these women,’ she said, ‘Did not want to be pregnant they did not choose it they may have been married to someone they didn’t want to marry they may be too young to have a child or two old they may have been raped they are desperate can you understand what that feels like? No how could you. You are not a woman…’
Even though Siobhan desperately wants a child but can’t have one, she nonetheless feels for the plight of those who don’t:
‘We do not murder women, Siobhan.’
‘You might as well,’ she said.

Left to ponder on what Siobhan has said Pope Patrick begins to feel unwell…
Virgin & Child is a provocative novel, it’s intelligent and engages with faith in a compassionate way. The portrait of Patrick is touching, he’s a sympathetic character, a reformer, a troubled man, struggling with doctrine and tradition. While the machinations and factional infighting of the Curia, the cognoscenti of the Church, are present these are men with feet of clay not villains, the novel is a fair in its representation of religious conviction.
Maggie Hamand was the first winner of the World One Day Novel Cup, for The Resurrection of the Body, she is a theologian, publisher, teacher and writer. Her books are unique, bold, and challenging none more so than Virgin & Child.
ISBN: 9781909954342, Barbican Press, hardback, April, 2020.


Lying Bastard by Clint Margrave.

This is a decent addition to the long tradition of humorous campus set literary fiction. Lying Bastard tackles the absurdity and farce of teaching at Long Beach Community College, California. This novel is a lot of fun but there are plenty of serious points about the state of modern higher education in the United States, (and for that read the wider western education system). If you are expecting to find more sense in the education sector than the wider world your hopes will be dashed by this novel. This is about everything from crumbling buildings to cruddy beaurcracy to claws out internal politics and is a master classes in how young minds are stifled and teachers worn down. It’s about systems that aren’t very good at recognising people’s need and their individuality. In this modern technology rich, personal time poor world everything seems more complex and confused. This satirical tale is insightful and thought provoking, you may not agree with the arguments that underpin the plot by you can engage with it. Lying Bastard is a light but erudite read, it navigates the interior world of higher education for the general fiction reader but insiders will delight in the minutae.
On page one anti-hero Berlin Saunders is to be found lying on the floor playing dead as a gunman runs amok across the campus. Readers are instantly alerted to the satirical nature of the oncoming tale from Berlin’s preoccupation with a negative performance review received for his English Composition teaching only twenty minutes before the bullets started flying. Then, while listening for the killer’s return, Berlin questions his decision to play dead. After all he’s been contemplating suicide all term, (although the note has been a problem due to writer’s block), his distress has gone unnoticed. He wonders whether the gods have taken the decision over life and death out of his hands, his fate to be decided by a ‘crazed’ murderer. Ok, so this is not totally in good taste, good satire rarely is, equally, it isn’t mocking of mass shootings, the novel questions the ‘how?’ and the ‘why?’
Berlin thinks Henry Crawford, head of department, has dubious reasons for slating his teaching at the performance review. Until the start of the current term Berlin was going out with Kathy Stone. They broke up when he admitted that he hated The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, (sexism and political correctness are themes in the novel). Stone is now seeing Crawford. Berlin thinks he knows who the masked gunman is, although admitting that, if he survives, would draw criticism for not having spotted the warning signs. Anyway Berlin thinks the killer is former soldier, now one of his students, Adam Rowan.
On the day of the shooting Berlin is only in class because he swapped a shift with Tom Corona. Tom, the younger, more ambitious, much keener lecturer, is still looking for the holy grail of higher education – full-time tenure. Tom is prepared to kiss ass and join any available committee to make himself useful to that end. Berlin has given up on ambition, knowing talent and hard work aren’t enough in the eyes of management. The novel tells the story of that fateful term from the introduction of Berlin to his new students at Long Beach Community College, including Adam Rowan:
‘The students cared even less than he [Berlin] did about being there.’
The chapter titles are entertaining puns and word plays, the crack in the liberty bell a long running metaphor, the overall tone is witty but the novel questions what’s education is for and is about the current state of things. Lying Bastard is about the lies we tell ourselves and the assumption and misinterpretations we make of other people, about what it’s like to be a professor in modern education. An entertaining and perceptive read.
Like all small independent presses Run Amok is having a hard time at the moment. The only way we can support publishers and writers is to buy books.
Run Amok Press, ISBN: 9781733352611, paperback, May 2020.


A Case of Noir by Paul D Brazill

Number 8 in the Close To The Bone’s ‘Knuckle Cracking Novella’ series.

Don’t read this review, let alone the book, if you’re of a sensitive disposition. A Case of Noir is an exhilarating gritty entertainment. This book and me was best friends for a couple of hours yesterday because for me a decent noirish pulp is like a fix. Okay, I don’t need it daily, but I don’t like the gap between hits to grow too long either – best to avoid the withdrawal symptoms, so I was glad to find this one. Some people need love and romance, (there’s sort of a bit of that here – in a lustfully twisted way), but I need cold, hard edged cynicism and bouts of verbal jousting that lead to mindless violence in a sort of satirical, belly laughing kind of way. Something to: ‘shake me up, Judy!’ What better than a heady mix of cross, double cross, murder and mayhem to do that – if A Case of Noir were a cocktail it would be a ‘pan galactic gargle blaster’. This novella is irreverent, blackly comic, dirty, grim and very well written. Old Trumpy might recommend something like a shot of coke adulterated with rat poison and bleach as a cure for Covid-19, but my vote goes to A Case of Noir – Only try the latter at home kids!
A Case of Noir opens in Warsaw’s Ajeja Jana Pawla district; cold, stormy, uninviting, unappealing unless you like a bit of sleaze with your frost bite. The narrator looks out on to:
‘Sex shops, peep shows and twenty-four-hour bars, booze shops and kebab shops were pretty much the only buildings that I could see, apart from the Westin Hotel, with its vertigo inducing glass elevator…’
Into this touching scene come two cop cars chasing a taxi, which then crashes. When the cops catch up to the fleeing driver they smack him around a bit before throwing him in to the back of a van. Luke’s attention is refocused inside the room as Tatiana pours him a drink, he tells us:
‘Her English was perfect but her Ukrainian accent was as dark and as bitter as the Galois that she deeply inhaled.’
You might think these are star crossed lovers but they just haven’t got the financial arrangements out of the way yet. Money on the table, the blow job is duly delivered, not that I’m saying Tatiana doesn’t really like Luke maybe she does? The post coital imbibe is underway when a gorilla tries to break the room door down. The only way to react is to wait out Bronek, a love sick client. Eventually he’ll go away and they can leave. Sure enough at midnight the knocking stops as the big man sets off to church before going home to the wife and kids. Luke heads for Rory’s Irish Pub and by the end of the night there’s only Rory, Sean, the disillusioned alcoholic EFL teacher, and Luke left. That is until the gorgeous blonde walks in. Crazy Jola is the wife of mid-level gangster, second hand clothes baron, Robert Nowak. He owns another Irish bar, The Emerald Isle. Sean warns him but Luke isn’t thinking with his head. The hack, (Luke is a journo), and gangster’s moll chat before heading to the tap room for a tup. As the weeks go by Luke goes back to Tatiana, she tells him about her abusive husband and her lesbian lover, they’ve got a rapport but he can’t forget Jola. Eventually he heads back to the Emerald Isle, they reconnect and then:
‘You know’, she said. ‘Life with Robert is like a living death these days. I really do want to get away. Escape. I’ve managed to save some money, but it’s not enough. Anyway…’
Now you’ve got a rough idea where this adventure is going but Brazill likes surprises and curve balls and corkscrew twists. The dialogue is sharp and the prose pared down. The people on these pages are an assortment of eccentrics, odd balls, kooks, misfits, liars, drug dealers, killers, creeps, femme fatales (plural) and a priest (of sorts). A Euro-roving odyssey take us to Seatown (where it all began), Madrid, Granada, Toulouse, and Cambridge. Chock full of cultural references from Dickens to the Fun Boy Three. This is a darkly inventive and clever entertainment, the love child of hardboiled/noir/pulp of old but this is a thoroughly modern tale.
Buying this book was the best £2.50 I spent all week and not just because it was the only £2.50 I spent this week on account of lock down, (Still available on Amazon for £2.99 as of 30/5/20). I’m off to buy Paul D Brazill’s new book: Man of the World (All Due Respect Press, April 2020).
Close to the Bone Publishing, paperback, 2017. ISBN: 9781521043998.