Monthly Archives: April 2012

Criminal Classics – Gerard Brennan


Gerard Brennan is a Belfast-based author and ex-rockgod.  His novella The Point garnered rave reviews, and his debut novel Wee Rockets has been justifiably compared to The Wire and City of God.  Gerard also co-edited the Spinetingler nominated Requiems for the Departed, a collection of short stories based on Irish folklore and featuring the creme of contemporary crime fiction.  He blogs at Crime Scene NI.

Here’s Gerard on The Truth Commissioner by David Park…




David Park’s The Truth Commissioner is minimal in action and big on introspection. Each of the four main characters is believable in their flaws, entirely human and utterly miserable. I’m slightly worried that they’re a depressing representation of modern Northern Irish man:

Stanfield – The truth commissioner. He’s been drafted in to oversee a vital stage in the peace and reconciliation process in which the circumstances around the ‘disappeared’ are investigated. However professional he seems, his personal life is far from enviable.

Gilroy – The ex-provo politician. He’s tied in to a particular ‘disappeared’ case under investigation but the issue seems to be overshadowed by his daughter’s impending marriage.

Fenton – The ex-RUC officer. His involvement in the investigation has dragged him out of a peaceful retirement.

Danny – A young man trying to build a new life in America. But not even the Atlantic Ocean can insulate him from his past.

There’s a melancholy running though the book. Isolation and loneliness seem to be the predominant feelings shared by the cast. They’re all haunted in their own way, and for much the same reason in the cases of Gilroy, Fenton and Danny. Little comfort to those who believe they have suffered loss at the hands of these characters, but perhaps a hint of a way towards reconciliation? Yes, we’ve all been hurt by the Troubles, even those perceived to have done the hurting. Is that the book’s message? Possibly. This one will leave you thinking.

As far as an examination of the political situation in Northern Ireland goes, The Truth Commissioner is a well-balanced and very interesting assessment. It’s not preachy and nor does it lean towards any particular political opinion. We need more books like this, and I need to read them. If you’re Northern Irish, you could almost consider it therapy.


– Gerard Brennan


The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

Criminal Classics – Russel D. McLean

Russel D. McLean is an author, blogger and international jetsetter.  His latest novel Father Confessor is out in September, but until then you can catch up with the travails of Dundee PI J McNee with his excellent collection of shorts The Death of Ronnie Sweets, or the previous novel The Lost Sister.  Russel blogs at Do Some Damage and Crime Scene Scotland.

Russel’s pick is The Privates Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg …

Although it took Ian Rankin to point it out explicitly (he’s writing a screenplay adaptation of the novel and has often talked about in public appearances), it should have been obvious to me when I first read the novel at university that, with its dual narrative and clear psychological insight, MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER would plant the roots of what would later become the serial killer thriller.

Read any novel with a killer who leaves confessions and letters behind and you will hear echoes (however weak) of Hogg’s masterpiece. The plot concerns a young man who is beguiled by a stranger (possibly the devil, but more likely a figment of his own fevered mind) into committing acts of murder and sin. This figure persuades our Sinner that he is one of the Elect and will gain entry to heaven no matter what he does. The book is divided into two narratives; the editor’s narrative and the Sinner’s own journals.

MEMOIRS remains powerful even today, despite Hogg’s slapdash approach to his work. He claimed to never know when writing one line of a novel what the next would be, preferring instead to trust in “the fire and rapidity of true genius”*. And he despised the idea of revisions. Although this makes his lesser works rather forgettable, In the case of MEMOIRS, this approach works wonders, giving the book much of its raw power; something in the intensity of the writing gives life and credence to the book’s dark, confessionary nature.

(parts of this essay were originally presented as part of the Armitstead Lecture Series 2012 – “DOWN THESE AYE MEAN STREETS: A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH SCOTTISH CRIME FICTION and have been revised or edited for the purposes of this article)

*As referred to in the introduction to the 1999 Oxford World Classics edition, by John Carey

– Russel D. McLean

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

Criminal Classics – Craig Robertson

Craig Robertson’s latest book Cold Grave is out in June but until then you can catch up with his debut Random, a tricky and sharply written serial killer novel, and the follow-up Snapshot.  You can stalk him on Twitter and find more about his work on Facebook.

Here’s the man himself on Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman…

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is rarely regarded as a crime novel despite the prima facie evidence at the scene suggesting that it very much is one.

The unnamed narrator sets out with an accomplice to rob a local man and in the process the victim is murdered. The accomplice delivers “a great blow to the neck” then the narrator “smashes his jaw in with my spade”. So far, so crime.

It is a thriller that is terrifying in places, underpinned by themes of guilt and retribution. The plot centres round a stolen money-box, a spell in jail and, of course, policemen (three of them). Sounds like a crime novel, right?

And yet…

If we were to ignore the primary evidence and instead do a DNA test on The Third Policeman, we would undoubtedly find traces of Alice in Wonderland. There would also be the odd polymer of Crime and Punishment and definite strands of Dante’s Inferno.

The Third Policeman is a book like no other. It is intricate, deep, inventive, funny and scary. Nothing is as it seems and that is probably just as well when that includes an army of one-legged men; a box that can produce anything you desire; a contraption which changes sound into light; and one man’s unrequited love for his bicycle.

O’Brien’s book is a comic masterpiece of the absurd and a triumph of satire.

The most difficult question to answer about The Third Policeman is probably the one that is asked most often. What is it about? My best stab at it would be to suggest it is about the eternal damnation of a deserving hell. And bicycles.

My best advice would be not to try to classify it or analyse it. Just read it.

– Craig Robertson

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

Criminal Classics – Zoe Sharp

Zoe Sharp is the woman Lee Child wishes he was – Google it, it’s true – she’s the author of the kick-ass Charlie Fox series, which is now on its ninth installment; Fifth Victim, and features in Childs’ new anthology Vengeance.   Zoe blogs regularly on her website, and at Murderati, and can also be found on Facebook, and Twitter (@AuthorZoeSharp).

Zoe’s pick is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies…

“What’s the dirtiest thing there is?”

This is a question asked by the visionary character, Simon. The answer he’s looking for is abstract—evil.

In William Golding’s 1954 classic, a group of English schoolboys being evacuated during a nuclear war are marooned on a tropical island after their plane crashes with the loss of all adults in the party. The boys start off with some semblance of law and order, electing Ralph as their leader, with the intellectual Piggy as his advisor. They build houses, gather fruit, and start a signal fire in hope of rescue.

It isn’t long before another boy, Jack, challenges Ralph. Jack wants to hunt, gradually becoming more and more consumed by the savage and predatory side of his nature. Jack is supported by Roger, whose sadistic tendencies are allowed free rein without the constraints of grownups and civilised society. He becomes Jack’s henchman and enforcer.

The boys all have fears, at first of some unnamed beast they think is lurking in the jungle, then later of the body of a dead paratrooper which lands on the island’s mountaintop and seems to move of its own volition as the wind catches the corpse’s canopy. This fear leads to Jack seizing control and appointing himself tribal Chief. Simon is accidentally killed when he appears in the camp suddenly out of the darkness, having discovered the true identity of the dead paratrooper. But when Ralph and Piggy refuse to submit to Jack’s tribe, Piggy is murdered by Roger. The boys start a forest fire in an attempt to run Ralph to ground. It is this fire which leads to their ultimate rescue.

Golding’s book was intended to be a modern fable, although it is not as clear-cut as that. His theory was that humans have savage and brutal natures which are only held in check by society as a whole. When society breaks down, evil takes control. It is Simon who sees this most clearly, after Jack’s slaughter of a nursing sow and the mounting of her head on a stick. To Simon’s hallucinating mind, this fly-blown head is the Lord of the Flies of the title, who taunts him that the nature of evil cannot be hunted down as it is contained inside the human psyche.

Golding set his tale on a tropical island to offer contrast to the boys’ adventure novels of the period. The war going on in the outside world—that led to the boys’ situation—is another point, that the grownups have descended into savagery, too.

At the heart of every crime novel is some form of exploration of the nature of evil. Lord of the Flies strips that to the bone.

– Zoe Sharp

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

Criminal Classics – Liz Avey


Liz Avey is a Scandi-crime specialist and reviewer at Crime Fiction Lover.  You can also find her over at her excellent blog Spriteby’s Bokhylle.

Here’s Liz on Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park…




Cruz Smith has written seven books featuring his Russian detective, Arkady Renko, which span a time period of nearly thirty years.  However, its Gorky Park that is the one that really stands out for me because of the way it explores the harsh realities of life under the Soviet Union in the early 80s.

It’s a book I first came across in my teens and find myself returning to every once in a while. Two things that have always stood out for me are the image of workers queuing for a lunch of cabbage pasties that sounded inedible, washed down with a shot of vodka, and the eight different mafia groups that vie with each other for overall control. Everything just sounds so bleak and dangerous.

The book opens with the grisly discovery of three bodies in Moscow’s famous park.  Not only have the victims been shot in the chest and face, but their fingerprints have been completely obliterated to ensure that they can’t be identified.  What follows is an investigation by a police officer who finds that there’s more to good policing than being able to catch the bad guys, it also means that you have to tow the party line, in this case, the Communist Party.

The KGB refuse to touch the case; an instant indicator that something isn’t quite right and the sensible man would walk away. In choosing to pursue the investigation, Arkady soon finds himself clocking up some very powerful enemies who aren’t particularly keen on his snooping around.  It’s hard for Renko to know who he can and cannot trust, even amongst his own colleagues, and he makes some unexpected allies in the form of a New York cop and Irina, the girlfriend of American sable importer, Jack Osborne. Renko’s determination is seen as arrogant and he’s labelled mentally unstable by his superiors, something that Cruz Smith points out would not have been unusual for those who show an unwillingness to conform. Ultimately, it’s Arkady’s loyalty to the party that’s being called into question and persistence, at least in solving this case means that he is crossing a line into being classified a dissident. As a reader, it’s a book that first draws you in as a good old-fashioned police procedural and develops into a thriller that keeps you gripped.  Tensions are built up gradually before eventually reaching quite an intense crescendo.


– Liz Avey


The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

Criminal Classics – John Rickards


John Rickards writes books and tells lies and if you call him Sean Cregan he’ll usually answer.  He blogs at The Nameless Horror, where you can – and definitely should – get copies of his books, including the outstanding dystopian actioner All You Leave Behind.

John’s pick is The Killing Jar, by Nicola Monaghan…




If I was to outline the basic elements of a story like so: child of a smack-addict prostitute on a council estate, slow rise up the local shitty crime ladder from helping mum’s clients hide their stashes to dealing speed to schoolkids, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, desire to either rise to the top or get out entirely, blah blah blah, you might be expecting one of those terribly worthy inner-city London dramas on Channel 4.

But this is not that. This is set in Nottingham.

Joking aside, it’s a world apart. In fact, The Killing Jar is something that most of this type of story should really aspire to. I’m aware that I’m in the minority, but I hated Requiem For A Dream. Awful characters failing to do much and getting ludicrously ruined because DRUGS ARE BAD. Lose an arm, have ECT, bring out the dildo. Roll credits. Hated it. This, this right here, is what Requiem could and should have been. It covers, superficially, similar ground, but does so with far more grace, nuance and grounding. Those involved are sympathetic (though, as in real life, never entirely so), and their lives feel genuine.

The main character, Kerrie-Ann, like the supporting cast, has proper, realistic depth to her, neither a hero nor a villain, victim or abuser, but both by turns. Her story is horribly miserable — the potted version has her mum vanish, leaving her to look after herself and her little brother, her getting involved with her boyfriend’s shitty estate criminal family doing petty stuff (and selling speed to kids at school), before he and her establish themselves as up-and-comer pill suppliers for the local rave scene, a move which eventually turns bad. She has a (genuinely harrowing) induced miscarriage at, as I recall, 16, because she didn’t quit her pill-popping, drink and coke ways, trying to kid herself she wasn’t pregnant, cleans up her act but loses her little brother to the crappy life she’s surrounded by, and her boyfriend turns into an abusive cock with violent tendencies and wild, drug-induced mood swings.

Awful stuff, no? But the book, written in the most unaffected local speech I think I’ve read in text, never gets sucked into EverythingIsBadsville. There are flashes of brightness, better days and good spells. No one, even the boyfriend, is completely awful, because by and large people aren’t. The estate isn’t a hell hole but a home and a community, even if everyone in it knows it’s pretty lousy, because that’s how they are. The drugs are mostly just drugs rather than the ultimate evil, because that’s what they are. And the ending, which I won’t spoil suffice it to say that it looks like she’s going to do one thing when her brother’s run, beyond her ability to save, and she’s had enough of the boyfriend, only to change her mind and do something completely different, is gently and welcomingly upbeat.

This is proper, real social fiction, beautifully told. It was also Monaghan’s debut. I can’t understand why it didn’t make more waves, but it certainly deserves a look from anyone with any interest in modern urban life or who thinks that the Daily Mail’s portraits of poor city culture or estate life are chillingly accurate.


– John Rickards


The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

Criminal Classics – Len Wanner

Len Wanner is the author of The Crime Interviews, a series of probing encounters with Scotland’s top crime writers.  Volume Two, which features Tony Black, Doug Johnstone and Ray Banks, among others, is out today and you can read more on his website The Crime of it All.

Len’s pick is Do They Know I’m Running by David Corbett…

If reading Ernest Hemingway makes you wish he hadn’t shot the great American novel, if your only complaint about Graham Greene is that he didn’t leave an heir to the epic international thriller, if you’re still backing Malcolm Lowry in his race to grace because contemporary literature challenges you less than a walk in the park, then read David Corbett. Do They Know I’m Running?, whether you like it or love it, will bring you up to speed on just how much a single novel can still change your life.

This is the story of what happens when we go to war, see part of our humanity die, and then wish with all the heart we have left that there was some other way home. Told from multiple points of view and at a pace that gives us no time to applaud ourselves as we watch and weep, something unique sets this novel apart from the demagogy that so often taints the debate on immigration politics, human trafficking, gang warfare, and our Pyrrhic ‘war on terror’. Corbett writes with such unflinching honesty that we have to forgive him the loss of our innocence as Roque Montalvo, Latino Holden Caulfield of the 21st century, fights the law; both that of the land and that of unintended consequences.

Entrapped by a conflicted family history, Roque sits on the fence between El Salvador and the US where his people are torn apart by organised criminals and recruitment officers alike. In a desperate attempt to smuggle his deported uncle back into the country, he travels through Guatemala and Mexico while his half-brother, an ex-marine as scarred as Iraq, organises the funds necessary to safeguard their passage home. Soon Roque is entrusted with the fate of a girl as beautiful as tragedy herself, and betrayal becomes the price of survival. Worse still, no one seems too certain about the Palestinian refugee in their midst, and once his guarantor turns FBI informant, borders are crossed with every loss of faith in those who promised protection and a way home.

Why is David Corbett the next big American novelist? Because he knows what he’s doing. At a time when most men of letters think they owe it to themselves to be easily bruised, Corbett knows he owes it to his readers to be unique, understanding, and unafraid. Setting his sights on a world beyond his own is not colonial complacency but simple strength. He lets us see unfamiliar places and perspectives with the same humble sensitivity with which he lets us see our shared violence and suffering. He is at home in life, and even in his darkest moments he shows us the difference between imitation feeling and the real thing, the stuff that will singe your soul or make you wish you had one.

Yes, David Corbett knows what he’s doing when he shows us sentimentality and cynicism as two sides of one nature, when he makes us wonder just how honest we want him to be, not only about his protagonists, but about ourselves. That, after all, is the measure of how much a novel can change your life. So when you find your own answer to Do They Know I’m Running?, the world might not be a better place, but you will certainly be a better reader; one who has found a way out of hell and the wisdom to know it is paved with perseverance.

– Len Wanner

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.