Review: The Watchman by Robert Crais

30 January 2008

thewatchman.jpgRobert Crais has been writing excellent crime novels for twenty years now. Most of them have featured Elvis Cole and his sidekick, Joe Pike, a former cop, former marine and former mercenary who plays the really hard guy who often as not gets Elvis out of trouble and generally watches his back. But this book concentrates on Joe, and its Elvis who is the support player.

This story has Joe Pike returning a favour by taking on bodyguard duties for Larkin Barkley, a Paris Hilton-style heiress rich girl, who saw too much at a car accident and is now targeted, by someone. The action is about how Joe, with help from Elvis and others, decides to take the action to the pursuers, to find out who they are and why they are targeting Larkin. Needless to say there are plenty of plot twists, lots of shootings and bodies, and justice is done in the end without much recourse to the legal system. Also, the inevitable happens and Joe falls for the girl – well that was so predictable that it doesn’t really reveal anything you couldn’t have guessed up front.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to Joe Pike’s past as a boy growing up in a violent household, as a rookie cop (origin of the favour he’s returning in this book), as a Marine and as a mercenary – all of them violent. But Joe is not really mean, he has a code and he sticks to it. What I get out of this is that this book is intended as an explanation of Joe Pike and the kind of character that he is – the plot is simply the backdrop for Joe’s story. This means that the balance between biography and crime is tilting towards the former, possibly to the detriment of the book, but at least you’ll have a better awareness of what makes Joe tick when he appears in future Robert Crais novels.

As always, the writing is crisp, and we can accept the combination of forensics, street awareness, deduction and human understanding that keep driving the story forwards. The characteristic humour is there – not necessarily through Pike, who seems a bit bereft in that direction, but Elvis contributes his bit, as does criminalist John Chen.

The Watchman by Robert Crais, published by Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster), (2007), ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-6169-9, ISBN-10: 1-4165-6169-2

Other books by Robert Crais:

Elvis Cole and Joe Pike – The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987), Stalking the Angel (1989), Lullaby Town (1992), Free Fall (1993), Voodoo River (1995), Sunset Express (1996), Indigo Slam (1997), L.A. Requiem (1999), The Last Detective (2003), The Forgotten Man (2005)

Other – Demolition Angel (2000), Hostage (2001), The Two-Minute Rule (2006)

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Review: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

21 January 2008

wintersbone.jpgDaniel Woodrell was one of the writers to feature in John Williams Back to the Badlands . Williams describes Winter’s Bone as “…a wonderful book, as beautiful and harsh and as indelibly of its people as an Appalachian folk song.” This is a pretty good description of the book. There is a lyrical quality to the writing that has it hovering somewhere above stark reality but very much reflecting it. It seems to be done so easily that you know it must have taken a lot of hard work and a lot of skill to achieve something this good.

In Winter’s Bone, sixteen year-old Ree finds that her father, who left her to care for her two younger brothers and her mother, has put up the house for bail, and they will lose it if he doesn’t show up for court. Ree’s search for him takes her through the valleys and creeks of the Ozarks, to friends and enemies, most of them related in some way or another. These people seem to exist on the edge of society, outside the law, but with their own code.

The story is rooted in the people and places, and seems timeless. There is a looming, gray presence of winter – “The sky came into the valley low, glum and blustery, about to bust open and snow.” Ree is a Dolly, of the clan that inhabits these places:

There were two hundred Dollys, plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankerslys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful to kin in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own.

Ree’s father, Jessup, is rough Dolly, a crank chef, which seems to have taken over from moonshine as the illegal drug of choice, and he has messed up. She tries to find him through Uncle Teardrop – “He was a nightmare to look at but he’d torn through a fistful of appealing wives. – and then through Thump Milton – “a fabled man, his face a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched.” She finds violence and pain, but perseveres. The outcome is as bleak as the life being led in this isolated culture, but does suggest some light at the end of Ree’s tunnel.

theonesyoudo.jpgTo follow up on Winter’s Bone, I tried The Ones You Do, that was written in 1992, and was not disappointed. The writing reminded me of George V Higgins and Elmore Leonard in the way that the dialogue tells the story of John X Shade and his family. John X and his young daughter have to leave town quickly after her mother absconds with Lunch Pumphrey’s money. They head for St Bruno, where John X’s sons from a previous marriage all live. Lunch follows. Lunch is not a pleasant fellow. As he tells a cuckolded husband “..when you get aged and rackety and think back across your entire life span, why, it ain’t the ones you do you regret, it’s the ones you don’t.” John X has a similar sort of view, but not as nasty, and pretty much knows what has to happen. The story is not complex, but the quality of the writing makes it a joy to read. I’m now going to track down all of Daniel Woodrell’s other books.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, published by Sceptre (2006), ISBN (hardback): 0 340 89797 x

The Ones You Do by Daniel Woodrell, published by No Exit Press (1994), ISBN: 1-84243-049-1

Other books by Daniel Woodrell – Under the Bright Lights, Woe to Live On (aka Ride With the Devil), Muscle for the Wing, Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir, Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister


Review: Camera by Eva Marie Liffner

13 January 2008

camera.jpgIt’s taken me a while to get around to reading Camera but I’m glad that I have now finally done it. This is one of those book which forces you to read between the lines to gain the full flavour of the story – it allows the reader to accept the writer’s assumption of awareness and attention to what she and her characters are saying and thinking. It is a quite remarkable achievement.

The story moves seamlessly between the 1980/90s and the past. Johanna Hall, a Swedish photographer, is tracking down some photographs that she has inherited , along with the rest of his property, from her uncle Jacob Hall, also a photographer (not sure how the dates and relationships all work out here) who was living in London in 1905. While there, he got involved with the Theosophist Society, including activist Annie Besant and the Reverend Charles Leadbetter, and also with W T Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette who arranged for the photographer Herbert Burrows to train Joseph in his craft (it’s not referred to in the book, but in fact a Herbert Burrows – not a photographer – was once, apparently, Annie’s colleague and lover).

Anyway, it seems there is something dodgy going on between Charles Leadbetter and a group of boys who are staying in the theosophists’ house, with Leadbetter claiming that they are being used in experiments to photograph souls, but the evidence suggesting something rather more mundane and sordid. Bodies and disappearances become involved, along with a damaged child, sister to one of the boys, and it is Joseph’s and later Johanna’s investigations into what went on that take the story forward.

Throughout the book there are number of recurring images – dreams, sharp acidic sharp smells, cats – that establish linkages of a sort in the narrative. The story moves around in time and place but in the end does not claim to resolve anything. Towards the end, Johanna muses:

I have had time to think and to accept that it is impossible to find answers to every question. Some facts make no sense in any context. It’s like having sorted two jigsaw puzzles found in the attic all mixed together in the same old box of sweet-smelling cardboard. There will be pieces that just don’t fit, and to expect otherwise would be silly.

Johanna goes on to her next project of recording graves about to be dismantled, and it’s not just the biographical details that interest her, but the choice of stone, the position of the grave and details like symbols of death. Details that in the end are probably pointless and of interest to no-one, but in their recording is an activity, like sorting the jigsaw puzzles, that fills in time.

Despite the lack of any real resolution, or perhaps because of it, I found this is a very satisfying book to read. The mix of real, historical figures and places and the imagined is so well done that it sends you off on research into those people and places. The fascination of photography and what the image is capable of telling you that the eye might not otherwise see, provides the basic driver of the story.

Camera by Eva-Marie Liffner, translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson, Vintage. ISBN: 0 099 45519 6

Other books by Eva-Marie Liffner РImago, Dr̦mmaren och sorgen


Review: Hidden River by Adrian McKinty

8 January 2008

hiddenriver.jpgNot far into Hidden River and you start to have a bit of sense of deja vu – haven’t we read something like this before from Adrian McKinty? Well, yes, sort of. There are parallels with Dead I Well May Be, McKinty’s first book. Both books are about Northern Irishmen fleeing their troubles by going to the USA and ending up in more trouble, violent trouble. In the earlier book the protagonist lost his dole eligibility through benefit fraud, so goes off to New York to work for an Irish gangster. In Hidden River, Alex Norton has resigned from the RUC after a meteoric rise to drug squad detective, is addicted to heroin, and gratefully takes the opportunity provided by a grieving family to go off an investigate the death of a school days girlfriend in Denver, before Scotland Yard can involve him in a corruption inquiry, or the corrupt cops silence him.

Alex’s friend and former colleague, John Campbell, comes along with him, and they make a start on investigation the death of Victoria Patawasti, who had worked for an environment organisation and had apparently been killed in a robbery. Of course she wasn’t, there is something dodgy about the environment organisation – its founders are rich boys with ambitions, one of whom has a very beautiful wife. Alex and John tend to mess things up, there’s a body so they need to scarper, and – amazing luck – they find a great place to hide. Violence, and sex, follows them around. Alex makes some progress in his investigation, but screws up (in a number of ways), is nearly killed, escapes back to Ulster.

The hidden river is the Saraswati, that flows only in heaven but comes to the earth at the point where the Ganges and the Yamuna meet, and it is here that your sins can be bathed away, wiping them clean for seven generations backward. Alex ends up there, and it helps him realise a vital clue involving another hidden river, a river that has dried to a trickle and so reveals Victoria’s killer. So justice of a sort is done, finally.

As in his first book, McKinty’s prose is sharp, well-paced, and compelling. But I think I like Dead I Well May Be better because it was bleaker, more noir, and its Michael Forsyth was somehow more real than Alex Norton. I’m looking forward to reading The Dead Yard, which picks up on his travails.

Hidden River, published by Serpent’s Tail, 2006. ISBN: 1 85242 472 9; ISBN 13: 978 1 85242 472 5

Other books by Adrian McKinty – Dead I Well May Be, The Dead Yard, Bloomsday Dead


Review: Saturday’s Child by Roy Banks

2 January 2008

saturdayschild.jpgSaturday’s Child is another example of the man going down the mean streets who is, at heart, not really mean, but is forced to act that way. Roy Banks paints a dismal picture of the violence and desperation under the surface of the apparently prosperous North. Neither the places nor the people are attractive, and prospects look bleak for his main character, Callum Innes.

Cal Innes has done a stretch in prison and is desperately trying to stay away from a repeat as he operates as a shadowy PI (private investigator, not private detective, apparently an important distinction relating to licensing). His goal is not helped by a liking for the booze and certainly not by the call from the local crime lord, Morris Tiernan, to find an absconding dealer from his dodgy casino. Morris has a pill-popping, evil son, Mo, who fancies himself in his father’s role and isn’t too happy with Cal being given the tracking job. Cal gets on the track of the dealer, Rob Stokes, who has not only gone off with some of Tierney’s money, but also his 16 year-old daughter, Alison.

The story is told from two alternating perspectives – from Cal and from Mo. The language and tone is very effective in conveying the different characters and in keeping up the suspense as the lines of action inevitably merge into a climax. We see that Cal is not really bad, and that his inability to be really mean is his fatal flaw in terms of surviving in his milieu. Mo, on the other hand is very mean, and although a lot of it is talk and bluster, he is capable of evil.

The action is regularly punctuated by violence, some attributable to Cal, some perpetrated on him, as the search moves from Manchester to Newcastle, with the regularity and viciousness of the various beatings apparently in inverse proportion to the victims’ ability to recover from them and still move the action forward. Note the effective use of a cricket bat in this context.

In the end, Cal has to make a decision about how to act, which is not really a decision at all, but certainly provides Roy Banks with plenty of scope for further action for this character.

Saturday’s Child, Paperback 2007 by Polygon, ISBN 10: 1 84697 011 3; ISBN 13: 978 1 84697 011 5

Other books by Roy Banks:
The Big Blind (2004), Donkey Punch (2007), No More Heroes (2007), Beast Of Burden (2008)