Tag Archives: gangs

Runaway Town by Jay Stringer

runaway town

Old Gold, Jay Stringer’s 2012 debut, was one of the strongest first novels I’ve read in years.  Introducing half-Romani cop, turned underworld detective, Eoin Miller it combined a hardboiled sensibility with a fine tuned social conscience and signalled the arrival of a promising talent on the British noir scene.  So I had high expectations when the second instalment, Runaway Town, was released.  I’m pleased to say those expectations were met and then some.

Miller returns, nursing the slow healing wounds he sustained at the end of Old Gold, treading carefully as he negotiates the tightrope between Wolverhampton’s two major crime families, the Gaines and the Manns, both of whom have holds over him, as well as some old scores to settle.  Miller is between jobs, coaching aspiring young footballers under the watchful eye of his sort-of-boss Veronica Gaines, when she calls with a proposition and a fat wad of cash.

She sends Miller to meet with a Catholic priest – not his usual clientele at all.  Father Donnelly, along with local radio presenter Salma Mina, has established a support group for immigrants, helping them to deal with the myriad small attacks on their dignity, but they’ve run into something too big for them to handle alone.  Several young girls have been raped and nobody wants an official investigation.  Miller understands the urge to protect the girls from press attention and unsympathetic police, as well as the desire to have the man responsible properly punished, but as he begins to investigate he discovers that Donnelly, Salma and Gaines may have a more compelling reason to keep the police out of the matter.

As he’s pursuing the serial rapist through the Black Country’s urban sprawl Miller is dogged by problems closer to home as well.  His mother has been attacked but refuses to say who is responsible, and the incident brings the far flung members of the Miller family back together; Eoin’s human rights campaigner sister Rosie and wayward brother Noah, who washes up with a payload of unresolved sibling rivalry and his eye on Veronica Gaines.

Jay Stringer is an author who doesn’t shy away from tough subjects and Runaway Town, even more than its predecessor, covers ground most crime writers avoid, and from a position very few adopt.  Superficially it’s a story about a serial rapist – handled, incidentally, with far more respect than in your average crime novel -but the true subject is immigration; almost every major character is of foreign extraction, an excellent reflection of the real ethnic make up of the post-industrial Midlands, and the growing political influence in area of a UKIP-like far right party is chillingly topical.  These are big themes but Stringer shows the effect at street level, taking us into fascists meeting rooms and slum housing, never letting the issues overshadow the terrible human cost.

Runaway Town is cracking read, lean, pacy and grimly realistic, exactly the kind of crime fiction I love, and as the series progresses and the character dynamics become more complex, it’s only getting better.


Review – Wee Rockets by Gerard Brennan

After last summers riots, and the resulting chorus of accusation and analysis from a remote middle class media, Wee Rockets feels like a very prescient book, focused on feral kids with lives dominated by casual brutality and rabid consumerism.  Reading some of the early reviews I was concerned that Gerard Brennan had turned out a piece of thinly veiled moral commentary – much talk of disenfranchisement and wasted lives – but he’s a far better writer than that and sidesteps the tedious politicising in order to produce another brisk and spiky crime novel.

Set on the mean streets of West Belfast – heartland of The Troubles but now in the throes of regeneration – Wee Rockets follows a group of young working class boys who aspire towards thugdom; you couldn’t call them a gang at the outset but they’re causing enough trouble to have the residents association worried and after they beat up an old dear local Gaelic footballer Stephen McVeigh turns vigilante on them, out to give the area some Provo-style justice.

The Wee Rockets leader, Joe Phillips, scents trouble and bails, at which point the gang dynamic shifts dramatically.  Taken over by a banger-wannabe with a chip on his shoulder they quickly graduate to harder drugs and more extreme acts of violence and Brennan creates a terrible velocity around their crime spree, making it seem inevitable that they will, at some point, kill.  Their growing reputation brings more attention from McVeigh, who’s still gunning for Joe, dating his mother Louise in order to get close to him.

Even away from the gang Joe’s problems deepen.  His dad Dermot’s back in town and looking for a reconciliation.  Louise isn’t buying the reformed routine – she knows what a charming gobshite Dermot is – but she tentatively approves; a boy needs his old man, even if he is a no-good, sucker-punching drug dealer who wants Joe for an apprentice/sacrificial lamb.  With the Wee Rockets out for his head too Joe has to find a way to extricate himself from the chaos, keeping his life and his liberty as both begin to look increasingly at risk.

Wee Rockets is being marketed as a hardboiled crime novel and it works perfectly as one – Brennan knows his skank as well as any writer around right now – but it’s packaged like a YA book and from the first page I thought it felt like the kind of dark, urban grit literate 11-14 year olds would love.  This is their world after all and Brennan has gone into it very sympathetically, saying ‘this is just what you have to do to survive.’  I think a lot of teenagers would respect that position while his adult readership might have forgotten the truth of it.

Brennan impressed me hugely with his debut novella The Point and Wee Rockets has cemented my opinion that he belongs among the top rank of Northern Irish crime writers.  He has a strong, recognisable voice, which sounds like a throwaway compliment but is actually very rare – how many writers could you identify from reading a single page?  Not many.  Brennan is unmistakable though.  His characters are unpleasantly authentic, his dialogue script-ready and his plotting tighter than a marching drum.

Review – All You Leave Behind by Sean Cregan

One my favourite things about twitter, besides the cute puppy photos and hardcore sweariness, is finding criminally overlooked books which Waterstones are too prickish to keep in stock.  Sean Cregan’s All You Leave Behind is one of them.

Chase is a runner, making high risk deliveries into The Levels, a slum no reputable company will enter, and he knows his game; blend in, move fast, never, ever open the package.  Which is doable, until a package starts ringing.  Inside is a gun and a woman’s voice at the other end of the phone telling him he was being set-up as an unwitting suicide bomber for the recipient.  She’s saved his life but the job still needs doing.

Chase isn’t the kind of man to go blowing holes in strangers for the hell of it though and as he begins to pick up hints about the mystery woman’s identity he gets dragged deeper into The Levels fractured geography of burned out lots and ambush-friendly rat-runs.  Is she a vigilante or a guardian angel?  With the package’s original senders after him to finish the job and his family under threat as a turf war rages Chase needs her to be the latter.

The denouement is driven forward at a tremendous pace, an orgy of cinematic violence which is ultimately very satisfying.

It’s impossible to read All You Leave Behind without thinking of William Gibson’s Sprawl novels, the architecture is the same, all slow decay and Darwinian solutions, and Cregan has a fantastic eye for location.  The Levels slum is an accelerated version of any western world sink estate you could think of, thriving but precarious and given a light cyberpunk gloss.  As in Gibson’s later novels the familiarity is nicely disconcerting, we know this place but we probably aren’t equipped to survive in it, which is a problem because it’s coming closer all the time.

This is an impressively sleek novella, written in stripped down prose with not a word out of place.  The characters are well drawn, the plotting pacy, and Cregan creates such a pervasive atmosphere that you can almost taste the smell of dead junky.

All You Leave Behind by Sean Cregan is available now.