Tag Archives: literature

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 – Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck is a writer living in Montclair, New Jersey. He is the editor of the Lost Children charity anthologies, and his work has appeared in Spinetingler Magazine, Pulp Modern, Shotgun Honey, Beat to a Pulp, The Utne Reader and Plots with Guns. His home on the web is Pluck You Too.

Here’s Thomas on Richard Wright’s Native Son…

 

A man plans a robbery with some friends, and once he knows it will go sour, he starts a brawl with the ringleader to get out of it. He takes a steady job in a rich home, tries to do their daughter a favor and she winds up dead…
Sound like a good hook for a crime novel? That’s part of one Native Son by Richard Wright. The protagonist is Bigger Thomas, and the girl dies by his hand. He is her chauffeur for a drunken evening, and when he carries her to her room, her blind mother comes to check on her. Terrified of being caught in a white girl’s bedroom, Bigger muffles her drunken mumblings with the pillow and suffocates her.

Fear and the hate that comes of it is a constant chilly undercurrent in this controversial tale. James Baldwin dismissed Bigger as an Uncle Tom. To some degree, Bigger has internalized the racist image of a subhuman brute who deserves his lot, and he wears his hatred openly. Native Son is not a novel that offers hope for healing. It puts Bigger in a hopeless situation. If he is discovered in Mary Dalton’s bedroom, he believes he will be murdered. He reacts with desperation and fear, and plunges himself into a worse dilemma.

Bigger covers up his crime by stuffing her body in the furnace and telling Mary’s parents that he last saw her when she came downstairs with two suitcases, with her radical boyfriend, Jan. The family sees it as a kidnapping, and reporters linger, playing up the class warfare angle. When one of them orders Bigger to put more coal in the furnace, he panics and shovels in too much to cover her bones, and he runs. They assume he raped and killed her, and print a lurid tale from their own imaginations, setting the blacks in town against him for shaming his race.

The novel also attempts to show how white radicals like Jan also see their own image of a black man instead of an individual, and how the fear of commingling makes their visit to a diner in a black neighborhood nearly as dangerous as if Bigger wandered into a whites-only one, but the core of the novel is his how his internalization of what others see him as limits his choices, and blinders him down a path of brutality.  That core is how one is affected by a steady diet of fear and self-hatred from birth. Bigger tries to plan an escape with his girlfriend on a snowy evening.  He is so overcome with emasculation, hopelessness and self-loathing that he rapes and kills her, sealing his own capture and doom. He has become the beast he’s been expected to be.

Is society to blame? Bigger is surely responsible for his own actions, but what the novel describes is how your environment limits your comprehension of the choices you can make. Rob, or work for the white man. Be caught with a white woman and die, or kill her and hide the body. When you’re caged in a yard with only one exit, it’s hard to see you can dig your way out under the fence, especially if you’ve never seen a shovel.

Native Son is a powerful novel that still resonates today, and serves as a window into the rat maze of poverty.

– Thomas Pluck

 

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


Criminal Classics – Iain Rowan

Iain Rowan is the author of two truly outstanding collections of short fiction, and his debut novel One of Us has just been released with Infinity Plus.  He is currently undertaking a project to write one short story every week, inspired by song titles, at 52 Songs, 52 Stories.  And he’s taking requests.

Iain’s Criminal Classic is Macbeth…

 

 

 

Consider this, for a crime story.

Think of an organisation. A drug gang, maybe, something like the Barksdale organisation. A senior member of that organisation wants to be at the top, capo di tutti capi, but he’s uncertain about whether he has what it takes to get there, and besides, the leader is firmly in control. Our man’s wife doesn’t share his uncertainty, and seduced by the thought of power she encourages him to be ruthless enough to do what he needs to do.

Despite his persistent doubts, her constant urging spurs him into action, and they plot their next move. She drugs the bodyguards’ drinks so that they black out, he murders his boss, and then when the body is discovered the next day he feigns rage, accuses the bodyguards of being the murderers, and kills them before they can give away the truth. The leader’s sons go on the run, convinced that whoever killed their father is going to come after them next, and knowing that they will also be suspects.

Our man finds that power is not all it is cracked up to be and is troubled by guilt and fear that someone will do to him what he did to his boss. He looks to secure his position at the top by turning his attention to a rival senior gang member, and in particular his son, who he has heard is favourite to rise to the top one day. He ambushes the two of them, kills the father, but the son escapes.

Always flaky, our man is starting to crack up at this point, wracked with guilt and doubt, haunted by visions of his dead friend and colleague, and at a meal with most of the organisation present he starts raving like a lunatic. His wife tries to smooth things over, but her mental state is disintegrating too. She knows that she has got blood on her hands, and she can’t handle it. As if he’d been over fond of dipping into the gang’s cocaine supply, our man passes through his fear, and begins to believe that he is invincible because he knows some secret information that his enemies do not.

Desperately trying to keep control in an organisation that is falling apart and where no-one trusts him any more, he orders the execution of the family of another gang member he considers a threat. The man whose family have been killed joins forces with the murdered leader’s son, and they put together a team to take the organisation on and reclaim the leadership. Our man’s wife can’t stand her guilt and fear and kills herself; stricken with grief he moves to the final showdown, convinced that he has the upper hand. In a fight with the man whose family he killed, our man finally comes to understand that what he thought impossible, is coming to pass, as it was always fated to be. He is hacked to death, the former leader’s son takes control of the organisation, and our man’s brief grasp at power is over, leaving behind it a futile trail of betrayal and blood and murder, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Macbeth’s one hell of a crime story.

– Iain Rowan

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


Criminal Classics – Martin Stanley

 

Martin Stanley is a Brit-grit author with a brace of  novels under his belt.  The Gamblers and The Hunters are both available now on Kindle and well worth a look.

Martin’s pick is The Outsider by Albert Camus…

 

 

 

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

 

So begins The Outsider, Albert Camus’ masterpiece of alienation.

 

The funeral of the protagonist’s mother gives us everything about the man that we need to know. Mersault experiences life from moment to moment, based on sensory experience, he seems to show little regard for the feelings of others, remains detached and aloof, and he is unflinchingly honest. These traits will ultimately prove to be his undoing, which pitches this work into the realm of noir.

 

Upon his return from the funeral, Mersault helps his neighbour Raymond take revenge on a girlfriend he suspects has been unfaithful and sets in motion a sequence of events that leads to him killing an Arab man on a beach. Mersault is arrested, incarcerated and tried for the crime. The prosecutor uses Mersault’s detachment to paint him as a soulless monster. It works, and Mersault is sentenced to death.  When a chaplain pesters him into accepting God Mersault flies into the one and only moment of rage in the entire book. He realises the pointlessness of his existence, of mankind’s existence, and tells the chaplain that nobody has the right to judge him. At the end, he accepts that the world ultimately won’t care about his death and finds a kind of peace.

 

The Outsider has a drive and momentum that few would normally ascribe to a piece of philosophical literature. Hell, there are plenty of pulp writers who probably wish they could tell a story as compelling and urgent as this. And, when push bumps chests with shove, Mersault’s story is pure noir. The novel’s conclusion isn’t one of triumph – after all, where’s the triumph in wanting a large crowd at your execution so you can feel less alone? No, you’ll find no triumph or happiness here, just truth, though you might be pleased to know that unlike many literary tales you won’t find many adverbs either!

 

The prose is as lean and hardboiled as they come. Camus openly acknowledged that The Outsider’s prose rhythms were influenced by James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice – and it shows. There are no bloated sentences or moments when the writer shows us his erudition (which in Camus’ case was considerable) – instead, he just gets on with telling a story and kicking the reader in the guts. And it’s all the better for it – you won’t forget this tale in a hurry.

 

If only all literature was this stripped back and powerful.

 

– Martin Stanley

 

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

 

 


Criminal Classics – Damien Seaman

 

Damien Seaman’s debut novel The Killing of Emma Gross is out now with Blasted Heath and available on Amazon.  You can find Damien at his blog and on Twitter.

His pick is RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island…

 

 


Ah, Treasure Island. What a book.

Aptly enough, if called upon to name my desert island read, this would be it. This is a classic novel in the most rudimentary sense: written by a Victorian, never out of print and adapted for the screen umpteen times. Ergo it must be a classic, right?

It doesn’t read like a classic; it’s actually readable. This is because Robert Louis Stevenson knows the value of a good story. Pack it full of incident and suspense and bugger the flowery language and highfalutin themes. We’re here to be entertained and whisked out of our everyday cares, not lectured to about the horrors of poverty, the nihilism of bourgeois intellectuals or the moral superiority of the Russian peasant.

What’s that? You want characters you can get your teeth into? Good point, I almost forgot. There are three reasons Treasure Island is brilliant. You’ll know them already, but in case you forgot here they are:

  1. Long
  2. John
  3. Silver

Name me a better villain in all of English literature. Can’t do it, can you?

Stevenson sets Silver up with great skill, first presenting us with two ugly, monstrous versions of piratehood from our childish nightmares. There’s Billy Bones, the tattooed, facially scarred, violent drunkard who intimidates all and sundry. Then Blind Pew, a twisted scarecrow of a man so frightening that he reduces Billy to the status of the tooth fairy, tracks Billy down and puts the fear of God into him. Well, it’s fear of the black spot actually, but all the same Billy goes and carks it out of sheer terror.

Who are both of these men scared of? A certain one-legged man who turns out to be Long John Silver, tavern owner, erstwhile quartermaster to the infamous – and long since dead – Captain Flint, and soon charismatic ship’s cook on the voyage to treasure island.

As our narrator Jim Hawkins makes plain, Silver does not look like a pirate when compared with Billy Bones or Blind Pew. He’s a warm, ruddy-faced, friendly sort who couldn’t possibly be a criminal.

And then Jim overhears Silver’s plan to mutiny and, shortly after, watches in horror as Silver murders one of the crew by stabbing him in the back in a frenzy. This bit is scarier than anything that went before, because we’ve seen our good friend turn into a murderer before our eyes. A man we trusted, admired even. Him, a pirate?

Stevenson understands how to make his reader shiver and he pours all of that keen insight into Long John Silver. Even at the end of the book, when Silver tells Jim that he would never have betrayed him, we still want to believe. We still like him, despite – or because of – his crimes.

It’s hard for us not to understand his motives either. When faced with such a huge treasure, one that we’d toiled hard to collect through a life of danger and death, what would we do in Silver’s place?

We think of Treasure Island as a kids’ book. That’s no bad thing. What we probably mean is that it’s accessible, exciting and reasonably short. But it’s also full of greed, murder and attempted murder, with a body count of well over a dozen by story’s end.

On top of all that, it’s a great advert for the many virtues of cheese. And really, what higher recommendation can there be for a novel than that?

 

– Damien Seaman

 

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

 

 


Criminal Classics – Jacques Filippi

 

Jacques Filippi is the co-founder of QuebeCrime Fest and reviewer at Crime Fiction Lover.  He blogs at The House of Crime and Mystery.

Here’s Jacques on The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan…

 

 

 

For many readers, Ian McEwan is “Amsterdam”, “Atonement”, “Saturday”, and more recently “On Chesil Beach” and “Solar”. But for others, like myself, it is “In Between the Sheets”, “The Child in Time”, “First Rites, Last Rites”. But mostly, it is “The Comfort Strangers” and “The Cement Garden”. The latter, published in 1978, is a classic of the gothic genre, an exploration into the darkness of a family’s gloomy life after both parents die, months apart.

 

The four siblings, two boys aged 15 (Jack) and 6 (Tom), and two girls aged 17 (Julie) and 13 (Sue) are suddenly orphans. Fearing they’d end up in different homes, and to prevent Tom from being placed for adoption, the children decide to hide the death of their mother from the authorities, thus keeping the family together. They place her in an old trunk in the cellar, pouring cement into it to bury her in.

 

The family has always lived in a remote and depressing area where houses have recently been demolished, theirs being one of the few left standing. They have no visitors, no relatives either. After a period of time where none of them seems to know how to grieve, the four children go on almost as usual, carrying in themselves the weight of their tragedy.

 

Jack, the narrator of the story, just wanted to be like everyone else but the loss of his father cracks something in him; he goes through a rebellious phase during which he neither cleans himself nor even changes his clothes. He spends the days masturbating, being mean to everyone, and daydreaming. His mind is a tormented and dark place where he loses himself; even his dreams are made of twisted Freudian scenes and filled with desperation.

 

Being the oldest, Julie soon becomes the surrogate mother, especially for young Tom who is the most traumatized from the loss of his mother. After getting beat up at school, he starts dressing up as a girl “because you don’t get hit when you’re a girl”; after his mother’s death his behaviour regresses into that of a baby.

 

As the family nucleus starts showing signs of weakness, so does the mother’s cement coffin, which is slowly splitting open; a foul odour from within spreads out and fills the house; like Poe’s tell-tale heart beating deafeningly, the overwhelming stench reminds the children of what they’ve done and of “what” is down there.

 

Ian McEwan brilliantly shows us the sad fate of four children that society has not only abandoned, but also forgotten. Telling their story from the perspective of the teenage boy, whose mind is as much troubled by his need of a fatherly presence as it is by his family’s isolation, is a brilliant, effective idea. The writing is voluntarily detached, almost emotionless, more observing than involved. It works so deeply on the reader that I read the whole story without feeling much of anything, numbed by the shocking events taking place in that house. As soon as I closed the book though, I felt something: it was a void. I was emotionally drained, emptied out.

 

A book like that stays with you a long time. I’ve recently read it again, and it was as if I had only left these kids a few minutes ago. The book had the same effect it had brought upon me fifteen years before when I first read it.

 

– Jacques Filippi

 

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

 

 


Criminal Classics – Heath Lowrance

Heath Lowrance is the author of the cult novel The Bastard Hand and a prolific producer of dark and twisted short stories which you can find at Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey and Pulp Metal, or in his collection Dig Ten Graves.  He blogs at PsychoNoir.

 

 

“There are all kinds of truth … but behind all of them there is only one truth and that is that there’s no truth.”

 
There’s a preoccupation with religion in the American South. It’s in the marrow of the land somehow, this blood and thunder, fire and brimstone notion of salvation. But it’s generally a pretty Protestant faith that dominates the southern states, so Flannery O’Connor was a bit of an anomaly.  A Roman Catholic, her notions of faith were a bit more restrained and philosophically inclined.  Also, a bit more resigned to the darkness inherent in the very concept of faith.

 
Her particular vision of salvation was laid out very nicely in her first novel, Wise Blood. In its way, it’s a defense of faith in a world where faith doesn’t seem to make any sense.  It’s a deeply serious book, yeah.  But it’s also a low comedy, Wise Blood is, with the blackest of humor seeping out of its pages like tar.

 
The story, in a nutshell: Hazel Motes is back home in Tennessee from WWII, a different man. His experiences have destroyed his faith in God and he’s now a confirmed and bitter atheist. So consumed is he by his hatred of God that he makes it his mission to spread a sort of anti-gospel, preaching on street corners and ranting at every opportunity.  And yet he can’t shake his bitterness. He feels haunted by his former faith, and a Jesus that moved “… from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

 
When Hazel hooks up with Enoch Emery, that’s when Wise Blood starts to become an exercise in the bizarre and grotesque. Enoch is a weird young man, working as a zoo keeper, who has this idea that he is a “wise blood”—that is, someone with an innate sense of the spiritual world and requires no spiritual guidance. Enoch falls in love with Hazel’s anti-gospel.  The two of them cross paths with a preacher named Asa Hawks (who blinds himself with lye to avoid worldly temptations– supposedly), and his daughter Sabbath Lily (who ruins Hazel’s attempts to seduce her by proving to be a raging nymphomaniac). As the lives of these four characters become hopelessly entwined, setting off one bleakly comedic event after another, Wise Blood veers toward the surreal.  You have a mummified dwarf. You have a creepy cop with weird blue eyes pushing Hazel’s car off a cliff for no reason. You have Enoch deciding that the key to salvation is dressing up like a gorilla. You have barbed wire and shards of glass in the shoes.  And you have one of the most astonishingly funny and dark and emotional American novels ever written.

 
So most folks who know me know that I’m an atheist. I don’t push my non-belief on anyone, but by the same token I don’t hide it either. Why, then, is a novel that exists in defense of religious faith one of my top five novels of all time?  Well, for one thing, I don’t require that a book adhere to my own personal philosophy for me to enjoy it. But more importantly, I love Wise Blood because, in its way, it’s a deeply existential story, with some of the most finely-drawn and weirdly relatable characters I’ve ever come across. O’Connor really makes us feel Hazel Motes spiritual pain.  And it’s so darkly funny, illustrating the fine, fine line between tragedy and comedy better than just about any book I can think of.

 
“He had the feeling that everything he saw was a broken-off piece of some giant blank thing that he had forgotten had happened to him.”

 

– Heath Lowrance

 

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