Monthly Archives: October 2011

Review – Dead Money by Ray Banks

I first became aware of Ray Banks through his irreverent film blog Norma Desmond’s Monkey and his new novel, Dead Money, bears the hallmarks of a cinephile mind.  The opening scene reads like a grimy hommage to Scorcese’s Casino, with Banks’ anti-hero Slater channelling De Niro as he sweeps The Palace’s faded pit, taking the reader into the world of grey-skinned grinders and luck junkies, filleting their delusions with an insider’s eye.

In the long-gone Banks worked as a croupier and a double glazing salesman and if any reader – or wannabe writer – doubts the value of paying your dues, they should look no further than Dead Money.  It is filthy with authenticity, from the player who molests his chips as he rifles them, to the witty deconstruction of a visit to clients who are ripe for the taking.  Banks knows the world he’s showing you and he handles it with a confidence which most writers could only dream of.

This being Banks there is inevitably violence and it is a million miles from the comic book antics of many crime novels.  This is violence as experienced in real life, sudden and brutal but quickly subsiding into the necessary sang froid.  Somebody has to clean the mess up afterall.

Alan Slater is a challenging protagonist in the mould of Amis’ John Self or Yates’ John Wilder; you like him but you’re not sure why.  He’s got a smart mouth and he listens to Chet Baker, which is always a winning combination, but his temper is explosive and he can’t keep it in his trousers.

If you hate him right now I guarantee he’ll win you over…because there’s no way you’re not buying this book.

Dead Money is a tight and pacy read, the prose stripped to the bone and the dialogue pitch-perfect.  Fans of Colin Bateman and Elmore Leonard will find it hits their sweet spot.  Cohen brother lovers;  one for you too.

For anyone new to Ray Banks’ work Dead Money is an ideal starting point, but you’re going to want more and you won’t be disappointed when you get it.

Published by Blasted Heath and available now.

Review – The Chaos We Know by Keith Rawson

A few months ago I read an amazing story on Shotgun Honey.  The Floating Man was short and tightly written and hinted at a dark imagination I just couldn’t resist.  And it is dark inside Keith Rawson’s head, blacker than crackwhore’s rotted out mouth.

In The Chaos We Know Rawson plays the part of a 21st century Hogarth, documenting a world we wouldn’t want to live in; trailer parks and dive bars, crack kitchens and hick suburbs, places where the grimmest casualties of the American dream wash up.  His cast of blue collar characters are constantly aspiring but time and again they are dragged back to the gutter, sabotaged by genetics or circumstances or sheer bad luck.

The first piece, An Appointment With Larry, is an acidic vignette about the personal politics of dealing meth and it sets up the collection perfectly.  Expect no loyalty, no love and no mercy.

Meth is a constant in this book, more than a theme, it becomes a character itself, driving the plot of many stories, acting as backdrop to others, and Rawson clearly has strong feelings about its destructive effect on society.

One story after another features basically decent people pushed to extremes by addiction and Rawson brings an unflinching eye to the subject.  The descriptions are brutal but also matter of fact; this is reality, Rawson seems to be saying, I don’t need purple prose, just look at what’s happening here.

The Anniversary Weekend is perhaps the most potent meth-story in the collection; pure Rawson.  It begins with a killer hook and he gradually teases out the story of how Jeanie got locked in a box for eight hours by her husband.  We know it’s going to be bad but Rawson builds to a scene of explosive domestic violence which contains the most nauseating eyeball related injury I’ve ever read.

Throughout the collection Rawson confidently steers his characters through encounters and situations which could easily descend into trash-territory and it is a huge credit to him that even when a sex-starved cop is get arse-raped by an Asian transvestite part of you is thing, yes, I could see that happening.  And I can believe he enjoyed it.

Rawson’s most successful stories for me are the ones where he steps out of the underclass.  What I Lost Along With My Keys is a nifty slice of white collar apathy, colourful and well structured.  In Clinical Trial he cleverly marries the amorality of militarised science to the whatever-it-takes attitude of a man trying to get rid of a troublesome ex-lover.  Is it a comment on Big Pharma?  I’d like to think so.

The standout story for me was the final one, The Lesson of Blood.  It is deceptively simple, an ex-wrestler gets into a fender bender with his young son and dismantles the other driver.  The writing is taut and atmospheric, the construction quite elegant.  But the real genius lies in Rawson’s placing it there, at the end of the collection, as a coda.

And, as with all good codas, the meaning is ambiguous.

Do we read The Chaos We Know as an extension of the fictionalised wrestling matches the character’s father despises?  All good fun and nobody got hurt?  I don’t think so.  I think Rawson wants us to understand the reality unpinning his work.  This is the way the world is, brutal and ugly and it isn’t going to get better anytime soon.

This is a strong collection from start to finish, cohesive and confidently written, promising great things from Rawson in the future.

The Chaos We Know by Keith Rawson is available now

Review – That Damned Coyote Hill by Heath Lowrance

Dig Ten Graves made me an instant evangelist for Heath Lowrance so I must confess to having high expectations when I got my hands on That Damned Coyote Hill.

Lowrance has an enviable ability to create images which stay with you long after you’ve put the book down – Charon lashed to post in It Will All Be Carried Away haunts me every time I go shopping – and That Damned Coyote Hill begins with a portentous encounter between a lone rider and a strange, unholy beast.  It is cinematic in intention and execution, Lowrance’s usual stripped down prose perfect for the moment.

Straddling the western and horror genres, Lowrance crafts a driving revenge tale, blood spattered and dust-stained, populated by folks you wouldn’t want to meet without a six-shooter at your hip and some who’d make you consider using it on yourself.  Hawthorne is an attractive enigma, who feels like a series character in the making, and on the strength of this short alone I think he’ll pick up a quite a following.

If you haven’t read Lowrance before That Damned Coyote Hill is a good place to start, perfect autumn evening reading, but be prepared to want more.

That Damned Coyote Hill is out now on Kindle

Review – Nowhere To Go by Iain Rowan

Iain Rowan is an evil genius.  This review was going to be about One Step Closer, a slim but in no way slight story, currently free on Amazon, but after reading it I had to have more and bought his collection Nowhere to Go.

The premise of One Step Closer is familiar – an everyman caught up in a bank robbery – and it’s to Rowan’s credit that you never feel certain how the story will end.  His hero, Wallis, is immediately endearing, just the kind of man you’d want holding your hand when things go pear-shaped, which of course they must.

The Chain continues Rowan’s theme of revamping well-worn tropes, when an unfaithful husband is put to the test by a blackmailer.

A Walk in the Park moves into darker territory, following a pair of hitmen on a job, and Rowan brings a nice eye for the dynamics of career criminality to the table.  The prose is clean but atmospheric and the dialogue flawless .

Through One of Us and Two Nights Work Rowan goes from strength to strength, taking us below the poverty line into dosshouses and back-street drinkers pubs.  An Easy Job is a nifty little revenge tale and Fake makes you wonder if Rowan isn’t a grifter on the side.

Moths introduces a femme fatale par excellence, Chairman of the Bored a Generation-Y nightmare child.  Both are excellent.

The Remains of My Estate feels made for the moment; an estate descending into chaos after police kill a civilian, while a dying man tries to give some meaning to his final hours.  The story is dark and brutal, but suffused with warmth for the kind of people who are vilified in most conventional crime fiction.

The final story, Nowhere To Go, is the one which will stick with me.  A man witnesses a murder which appears not to have happened.  Sounds simple but the writing sings and Rowan’s grasp on his character is firm as iron.

The entire collection is full of wit and sharp observations and Rowan does not put a foot wrong once.  The prose appears effortless, the dialogue pitch-perfect, and his ability to subvert so many of the short-story clichés is incredibly impressive.  Some of the best short fiction out there.  Buy it.

Published by Infinity Plus and available on Kindle now.

Review – Liverpool 5 by Luca Veste

This debut collection, published by Trestle Press – and part of what looks to be an exciting line-up – doesn’t pull any punches.

Veste neatly side steps the Scouse clichés to take the reader straight down to street level, onto the sink estates and into the bedrooms and kitchens of characters riven by long suppressed discontent and occasional outbursts of extreme violence.

Dreams – the opening story – is a quiet, introspective piece; two men talk on a bench about their lives.  It’s deceptively simple but it will stay with you; next time you see an old man hanging around in the town centre I guarantee you will think of it.

Veste shifts tone with Model Behaviour, a cautionary tale for bitches everywhere, and from then on we are taken into ever darker territory.  Heavy Sleeper is a chilling little story, perfectly paced and building towards a gutshot ending, while Peeling Spuds feels like the distillation of menopausal angst.

The final story He Ain’t Heavy, was my favourite, a classic brother versus brother clash.  You know it will end badly from the first sentence and Veste doesn’t disappoint.

Throughout the collection Veste showcases a variety of strong and completely credible voices, with no sense of authorial intrusion, and Liverpool 5 reeks of authenticity.  It is an assured debut which deserves every five star review it’s received – including mine.

Available now on Kindle.