Wednesday, 4 March 2015

On reading, writing and free speech

by Damien Seaman

Have you ever blasphemed?

I ask because it seems important in light of the recent Charlie Hebdo murders, already fast fading from memory.

Also because late last year I managed to offend more than a dozen religious believers without meaning to.

I’m sure I can’t be alone in this. These days committing the “sin” of blasphemy appears to be getting easier. I certainly hadn’t expected a largely innocuous email to cause such a storm…
It was the second week of my new job at a publishing firm. Little did I know I was about to make my reputation in the most unexpected of ways. All I’d wanted to do was write an email that snagged some sales.

I’d written the first draft. Fairly dull stuff it was too, about hidden charges in the financial industry. It had a decent mix of fact and mild outrage at how much regular investors were being taken for a ride. But it was still lacking something, I thought. Something to make readers really sit up and take notice.

So I added the soon-to-be-offending word and out the email went.

Three days later my plucky little missive had received more complaints than any previous email in the company’s history!

Now, I’d known the email subject header might cause a stir. After all, I wrote it with just that in mind.

You see, I’d taken the so-so headline: How much are they ripping us off? and changed it to:
Christ! How much are they ripping us off?

I’d expected some readers to object on the basis of its mild swearing. Amazingly, however – to me at least – the complainants were offended specifically on the basis of their Christian faith.

“You wouldn’t say this about Mohammed!”

And lo, as with the satirists at Charlie Hebdo, I too had blasphemed. I really hadn’t meant to. It honestly never occurred to me that anyone would take what I wrote – a common usage of “Christ!” as an expression of anger or frustration in everyday British speech – literally.

“You wouldn’t say that sort of thing about Mohammed,” one of them wrote.

Well no sir, of course I wouldn’t. There is no common equivalent British expression that calls upon the prophet. Although, since the Koran recognises Jesus as a lesser prophet, presumably my email would have annoyed devout Muslim readers also. 

Now, I didn’t get in trouble for this, I should add. No armed men turned up at my office to shoot me. I didn’t even get a stern telling off from the publisher. This is no doubt because, as well as a record number of complaints, I also got a record number of sales. (Mammon trumps Jehovah, thank God.)

So, another small similarity with Charlie Hebdo – causing offence is good for sales. Note this point, as we’ll return to it shortly.  

Even so, my employers frantically instituted a de facto anti-blasphemy policy in the legal department. Now not the merest hint of Christian defamation is allowed to go public.

The right to cause offence – is it under threat?

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a shame. After all, I don’t work for the government. I don’t work for a charity. I don’t work for a political party.

I work for a private company whose only mandate is to make money – albeit ethically. Why that means having to run scared from people who still think that God magically impregnated an illiterate virgin so she could give birth to his son, I don’t know.

But it does betray a very important point about the reality of free speech in our society. 

Looking at the Charlie Hebdo case for a moment, you’ve no doubt read several opinion pieces about the shootings.

These fall broadly into two camps:

1.       that it is never right to kill anyone for expressing themselves, however much they have offended you;

2.       that the Charlie Hebdo crew abused their right of free speech to go too far in upsetting Muslims, and they reaped their reward.

This is my reading of the most common arguments, and I think they miss the point.

Both of these opposing camps are really discussing the question not of the right to free speech, but of the right to give offence.  

If you think about it for a moment, two facts should become perfectly obvious. The first is that genuine free speech must include the right to offend – otherwise it cannot be called free. The second is that true free speech must also allow for people to be offended, and to say so.
So far, so good. The real challenge lies in how we respond to these facts. Just because you can offend, it doesn’t follow that you should. But the Charlie Hebdo crew had a pretty clear case for causing offence.

They’d been threatened before for making fun of Islam – both with death and with legal sanction. For the magazine to have any meaning as a satirical publication – or as a bastion of free speech – they were honour bound to continue. Because they stood for free speech, they therefore had a duty to satirise and offend those who by their actions had proved they did not.

The response they chose – to carry on – was really the only tenable one under the circumstances.

But in general, how should we respond if we give offence? Well, feel free to disagree, but I believe the only true response is to apologise for having given offence, but not for what you actually said. Not if you really believe in it. If you back down, you self-censor, and it’s in this way that free speech becomes eroded.

Or to put it in terms of an admittedly over-used axiom: unless you stand for something, you stand for nothing. Free speech only has meaning if you have something to speak about. 

Otherwise it remains purely theoretical.

Does this mean I support the right of racists to their opinions? Or of anti-abortionists to picket clinics? Or homophobes to oppose gay marriage?

Yes, of course. I disagree profoundly with all three of these groups. But I cannot force anyone to my way of thinking: that in itself would render speech unfree.

But should one racist beat up someone of another race…. Or an anti-abortionist attack a doctor… Or a homophobic parent verbally abuse their gay child… Well I can’t stand for that. And nor should any of us. Including – I would hope, perhaps naively – the majority of homophobes, anti-abortionists or racists who would not stoop to such violence.

Money talks – so let’s use that to our advantage

We can all take a stand on the things we believe. In fact, if we truly care about our freedoms, we must do so. Happily, even as readers we can have an impact – and a powerful one.
It cannot escape our notice that one key reason why Charlie Hebdo kept on satirizing Islam was that this was good for sales. You’ll remember this was one of the main reasons I was never reprimanded for my blasphemy, either.

So I think it’s safe to say that money talks where free speech is concerned. And if we accept this is so, then surely we must support free expression by buying controversial books. If you’re an atheist or humanist, you could do worse than picking up a copy of a book by Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens. Or perhaps you want to learn more about Islam, or dig into the roots of Christianity. If so, then do it. Trump your normal reading habits and challenge yourself.

Some of my most exciting reading experiences have come from authors with whose world views I disagreed. I’m sure you’ve found the same. Not only does this help us grow. It also sends a signal to booksellers to keep these books in stock, thus ensuring that more and more readers can, in time, be exposed to them.

If you write, then don’t shy away from your beliefs either. You don’t have to write a polemic. Just refuse to censor yourself. Let your opinions and your beliefs come through in your writing.

If your beliefs are honest and heartfelt, readers will respond.

Some will respond negatively. You just have to be ready for that.

Oh, and one more thing…

Although we must accept the right for others to express beliefs we find upsetting, this doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to challenge them. In Britain we can be a little too hesitant in doing this. But let me give you an example of how it can work.

When I worked in a factory making Indian ready meals for a well-known supermarket chain, I got to know a very funny, friendly and outgoing Lithuanian. He was an intelligent guy by most measures, a trained lawyer whose qualifications sadly counted for nothing in the UK because of the different legal systems. And so he had to make ends meet by working in a factory, as many newish migrant workers must.

“Hang on – what the hell did you just say?”

Now, I said “sadly” he couldn’t practice law in Britain. And on the surface I’m sure you would agree that seems unfair. Hold on a moment, though, as there’s more.

Most everyone liked this guy, whose name I won’t repeat here. But one day, while we were cleaning down a production line together – and I can’t for the life of me recall how this subject was first raised – he suddenly said: “I can understand why Hitler did what he did about the Jews.”

I remember the line almost word for word, even though this happened more than four years ago, because of how much it shocked me.

“What did you say?” I ventured.

What followed was the most virulent anti-Semitic tirade I’d ever heard outside of my research for my historical novels (or in the comments section of certain broadsheets’ websites when the issue of Israel is mentioned, but that’s another story).

In vain did I argue with him. Nothing I said could change his mind. Somewhere in life, he’d decided the Jews were bad and deserved what they got during the Second World War. And that was that.

At a stroke, I became glad he was unable to practice law.

As I said, his views disgusted me. I find I must uphold his right to have them, and even to express them. But I have just as much right to be offended and to argue with him about why he is wrong.

Did I change his mind? No.

Did he change mine? No.

Was there any point to doing it?

You could argue that there wasn’t. But at the end of our somewhat heated discussion each of us at least knew where the other stood, and knew not to bring the subject up again unless we were ready for more verbal fisticuffs.

I’m disappointed I couldn’t convince him that he was wrong. But I was able to show him that there are people out there who disagree with him. And that really is the point. We disagreed and we argued – but we each spoke freely and never once resorted to violence. Nor did we come anywhere close.

While some people in the world think it is ok to bring AK47s to a debate, there will always remain some apprehension about the right to free expression. But that is why those of who care about this issue have a duty to act accordingly. Not just in how we respond to those around us, but also when it comes to what we choose to buy, to read, and to write. 

Damien Seaman in the author of The Killing Of Emma Gross (US) and Berlin Burning (US)

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The night James Ellroy was eyeing up my girlfriend…

by Damien Seaman

You’re familiar, I take it, with that horrendous cliché about never meeting your heroes?

Well I wouldn’t for one second presume to tell you whether or not you should. It’s entirely up to you.

Though here’s what happened to me when I met my favourite author. Learn from it such lessons as please you.

Ellroy has long been my favourite crime writer – principally for his well-known LA Quartet, which I’d recommend to anyone with a taste for good, dense prose and even denser plotting. Granted, to be entirely honest I’ve always found “LA Confidential” does sag in the middle. But the rest of the book more than makes up for that – and I don’t think there’s an ounce of spare fat on any other of the other three in the series.

So it turned out Ellroy was in town – London town that is – for One Night Only to plug his most recent work, “Perfidia”.

How did I find this out? Through a lovely romantic gesture from my girlfriend, who had discovered this and booked us tickets for Ellroy’s only promotional talk anywhere in the UK. Or, at least, that’s what the promotional material said, though I believe he did end up doing a few more talks at other venues afterwards.

Still, that’s ok. Just the usual marketing enthusiasm for unkeepable promises. Needless to say, I was excited at the prospect of meeting my hero. But then something strange happened.

With the daily grind of getting to grips with a new job, I kinda… just forgot about the whole Ellroy thing.

I didn’t prepare, is what I’m trying to say. Which is maybe why it went off the way it did.

Anyway, picture the scene. There we are, my girlfriend, me, and maybe 60 or 70 assorted hipsters and liberals, after a busy day at work, taking our seats for an evening of being growled at.

“I hate hipsters, I hate liberals, I hate rock’n’rollers, I hate the counter-culture, I hate movie people.”

This was the Ellroy quote the advertisers went with before the event, adding, “So as long as you don’t fit into any of those categories, we’ll see you there”… And then going on to hold the talk at one of the most achingly-hip hipster hangouts in London. I mean, it was in Shoreditch, for Christ’s sake.

I mention this because context is everything.  

And important to see why it was so funny when, at one point during his talk, Ellroy exclaimed that Britain and the US should have pressed on after the fall of Berlin in 1945 and invaded the Soviet Union to kick out Joseph Stalin. You could practically hear the sound of contracting sphincters around the room; this sort of anti-leftist talk is still discomforting for the hipster liberal.

But, no matter. It amused some of us in the room. Here, in no particular order, is a quick run- down of his other show-stopping statements on the night:

1.       Growing up, Ellroy had a (very much sexual) thing for high-cheekboned British actresses of the 60s – think Julie Christie and the like. This had led both to an appreciation for the gritty ‘kitchen-sink’ social realist British dramas of the time and a lifelong desire for a British girlfriend…. And I am happy to tell you he has recently furnished himself with an example of the latter. He reported himself happy, and threatened to spend more time in London as a result. Our motley crowd of liberal hipster rock’n’rollers beamed with regional pride.

2.       He proclaimed the women in the crowd to be “porn widows”. Young men these days are obsessed with online pornography, he announced with the confidence of a Daily Mail op ed column. As a result, we are neglecting our significant others, leaving them bereft of true, manly love.

3.       Once he’s finished writing the “second LA quartet”, of which new book “Perfidia” is the first instalment, he’s toying with the idea of tackling an espionage thriller. This was what brought on the “we should have stuck it to Uncle Joe back in the 40s” talk that had made so many of us uncomfortable.

4.       He apparently makes quite a lot of money writing pilot TV episodes and movie scripts that have never reached the screen – and are unlikely ever to do so. Despite his cache as the liberal hipster’s novelist of choice. An odd situation, but one he seemed cheerfully resigned to. Or as cheerful as Ellroy ever gets, anyway. On anyone else it would have looked like annoyance, but I think he found it amusing.

5.       Ellroy claims to know nothing of contemporary politics or the news. He watches no television, dislikes the internet, and spends all of his time immersed in the literature and music of the time and place he’s writing about. “I could tell you everything about politics in LA and the United States of America in the early 1940s,” he said, “but virtually nothing about what’s going on in the world today.”

Having thus fulfilled his unspoken contract to provide arresting copy for the magazine writer who was interviewing him, we moved on to book signing.

Aha, I thought, this is my chance to shake hands with my hero. Ellroy walked to the back of the room, casting a sly glance at my girlfriend as he did so.

Briefly, I wondered if he thought her to be a high-cheekboned British actress of some sort. (Yes on the cheek bones, no to the other two.)

Finally, having hung back a little, she and I went to what was more-or-less the back of the signing queue. And we waited. And waited.

The line grew slowly shorter. She grew more and more bored. I wrestled with what I was going to say to my literary idol of a decade or more.

Should I tell him how much I loved his work?

Hmmn – a bit starry-eyed.

What about how he helped inspire me to start writing my own books?

Ugh – too crass.

What areas of London would he be hanging around in now he had a girlfriend here?

God – too stalkerish.

Turned out this was more difficult than I thought it would be. Bloody hell – why hadn’t I thought about this beforehand?

It hadn’t been like this five or so years ago when I met Dirk Benedict outside the theatre in Peterborough where I was due to watch him perform as Columbo. Oh no, then the conversation had flowed like wine – and this was a man who’d been a hero for a hell of a lot longer than Ellroy. More profoundly so, since he was my childhood idol from the A-Team – not to mention the original Battlestar Galactica.

Perhaps the ease of this early hero-meeting had given me a false sense of security. Or maybe it was just different because that meeting had been unplanned, and hence no preparation had been possible.

Well, whatever the reason, as my meeting with Ellroy approached I was floundering. And the queue just kept on shortening.

What would I say?

In the end, it was fine but disappointing. Ellroy gestured towards the kinship he and I shared over being bald. I proffered a weak joke about how I’d started shaving my head to look like him.

Didn’t matter really. At that point he had eyes only for my bored girlfriend.

Was I just intimidated by him? Was he overly smitten by my comely companion?

Ah, who knows. Who cares, really. All I can say for sure is that neither he nor I managed to display the laid-back elan of Dirk Benedict on a sunny summer evening in a town you’ve probably never even heard of (though it does boast a cathedral said to be one of England’s finest).

Now all I have to show for my evening with James Ellroy are some awkward memories and my signed hardback of “Perfidia”.

No personal message. Just my name and a random squiggle that could belong to anyone.

   Damien Seaman is the author of the novella Berlin Burning (US)and novel The Killing Of Emma Gross  (US)

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Sea Minor Interview: Damien Seaman

Blasted Heath, as I'm sure you know, are the purveyors of extremely fine fiction. Among the Heathen family is one Damien Seaman, an author who is producing work that is engaging, thought provoking and original. I reviewed his novel The Killing Of Emma Gross here and the new novella, Berlin Burning here.

There is some common ground between the two and there are also marked differences. I asked Damien a few questions in the hope that I could explore his thoughts on each and dig a little into his motivations.

Among the similarities between the two works is the fact that I'd have no hesitation recommending either of them to anyone who enjoys an engaging and powerful read.

Here's how it went down:

Q: Your novel The Killing Emma Gross is based upon a true crime in the Weimar Republic whereas the novella Berlin Burning is a work that is entirely fictitious.  Did you find working without the constraints of a factual tale to be liberating or did it add unforeseen problems to your writing?

A: God yes – BerlinBurning was much more liberating. Trying to mix fact and fiction the way I did with Emma Gross is like putting two ferrets in a sack.  It gets messy. That wasn’t a problem with the new book.

If there was an unforeseen problem, it was that the first draft made a godawful mess of having two lead characters instead of just one, as I had in Emma Gross. So I had to mature as a writer between the first and second drafts if I was going to make it work.

That’s why it then took me a whole year to write the second draft – much longer than I’d hoped. That was me bashing my brains out against my technical limitations until they stretched to encompass the story I wanted to tell. I fear that will be the case with every book.

Q: Both books are set in Germany at around the same time. What is it that drew you to this period and country?

A: I lived in Berlin for three and a half years. Before long I found myself responding to the way Berliners deal with their 20th century past – it was intoxicating to me. There’s a real honesty there. A willingness to confront the past. Most countries don’t do that – they lie to themselves about their past instead.

For instance, even though the Berlin wall is almost all gone, they decided to mark where it used to be using bricks in the ground. They didn’t just leave a scar there; they built one as a reminder.

The Weimar Republic appealed because of its air of doomed glamour. It was an inspiring time of creativity and breaking social, sexual and artistic boundaries. But of course the Nazis’ rise to power put the kibosh on all of that. This gives a palpable sense of tension and suspense because readers know what’s to come – broadly speaking – whereas the characters have no idea.

Actually that was one of the main appeals for me. Trying to depict a period that most see as a mere prelude to Nazism. It didn’t feel like that at the time to those who lived through it, and if nothing else I really wanted to get that across – that historical events don’t always feel so significant while they’re happening. We certainly have no idea what’s going to happen next. Much less how to avoid it.

You could also argue that the period appeals because of its relevance to today. But that wasn’t a conscious choice. After all, you can overdo the whole “Look how similar things were then” bit. For example, if I describe a charismatic politician who shook up the status quo, developed a manifesto that combined nationalism and socialism, blamed the ills of his country on an outsider race that had exploited his people for centuries… well, that could be Hitler or it could be Alex Salmond. I trust you can see right away that this analogy isn’t close enough for most people to accept as equivalent.

So I would downplay any attempt to see today’s world as similar to that of the 1930s. Any such similarities are purely at surface level. My main motivation has been to write a sort of love letter to the republic which intrigued me, and to the Germans who lived through it.

Q: The Killing Of Emma Gross focuses upon the drive of one detective, Thomas Klein, whereas Berlin Burning features two police protagonists. Did you shift to the two because of limitations in the novel or was it simply a case of the characters appearing to you as a pair?

A: The real question here is: what does it say about our culture that police novels are so popular in the crime genre? There’s something vaguely depressing about that, in my view.

Is there anything so questionable as being unequivocally on the side of the law when the law is so open to corruption? So dedicated to the preservation of property rights or the rights of the rich and powerful?  Where’s the respect for the individual? The dissident? The downtrodden?

I think this is why the best police novels take one of three routes. They either emphasise the ridiculousness of the job using humour and camaraderie, as Ed McBain’s novels do. Or they delve wholeheartedly into the corruption, a la James Ellroy. Or they show the individual kicking against social and institutional prejudices, as in the work of Philip Kerr – or even Simenon to some extent.

Actually, there are novels that cross these boundaries – these categories aren’t mutually exclusive. But generally an author tends to emphasise one of the three; for ease of reference let’s dub them Humorous, Corrupt, and Existential.

Emma Gross is an Existential police novel. For that, a lone hero is necessary. Berlin Burning is a Humorous novel. For that, you really need the banter. Hence the two detectives.

With each book I was trying to make a different point, I think.

Emma Gross is about a man so disconnected from society that he sometimes feels he has more in common with the serial killer he’s captured than with his colleagues, who he despises as venal idiots. He feels trapped and can’t see how to break out of his malaise. He’s probably a metaphor for how I felt at that point in life.

Berlin Burning is about two decent men trying to get on with their job while the world slowly turns upside down around them. Both of them despise Nazism for different reasons, but neither appreciate that they’ll soon be forced to work under that regime or resign. Despite that, they manage to rise above it all so that justice – of a sort – is done.

Of course, this is all justification after the fact. At the gut level, the implication in your question is spot on. These stories just appeared to me that way. Not fully-formed, I might add. They evolved through the writing.

Q: It’s clear that your work has been extremely well-received – you’ve had plaudits from the likes of Stuart MacBride, James Oswald, Helen Fitzgerald, Tony Black and William Ryan. Are such comments and reviews in general things that give you a lift or do you shy away from them?

A: Praise makes anyone feel warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it?

I did ask people for their opinions, certainly. Firstly because it’s a boost when people you respect like what you do. Secondly because some of their readers might also end up liking what I do and becoming my readers too. And, lastly, when you publish what other authors think –for example on Amazon – this helps casual readers make up their minds whether they might like what I’ve written even if they don’t know me or the folks giving the plaudits. 

Q: You clearly love to travel and have lived in some amazing places. Is there anywhere else that you are keen to write about?

A: Yep, I’ve been lucky to have been able to travel so much. I do have plans to write about Sudan, Cairo, London, South Africa, Crete and New York in the next year or so. But I’ve only been to half of those places. And these stories will be set in the past anyway, which – as we all know – is another country again, and not one that issues visas.

So I don’t base my ideas on where I’ve been, per se. Though I may do some travelling to help the research for some of them.

It’s probably worth mentioning there are plenty of places I’ve been that haven’t inspired any story ideas – Russia, for example. Don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because I find the Russian mind utterly impenetrable. Perhaps there’s no real reason. I suspect there isn’t a direct cause and effect relationship with this stuff – not for me, anyway.

Q: Does your taste in fiction reflect your love of history? Do you prefer modern interpretations of the past or novels that were written during a time you’re curious about?

A: Great question. I tend to prefer things written at the time I’m writing about – not just novels, but diaries, biographies, autobiographies, letters, magazine articles, films, plays….

I certainly haven’t read that many historical novels recently. In fact, a couple of years ago I tried to put together a top ten list of my favourite historical novels and I struggled to fill it.

If historical novels have a failing, it’s that they tend to strive for “relevance” by shoe-horning in some sort of modern comparison to the people or events depicted. Or, even worse, they try to offer some sort of lessons for readers to learn. God forbid. Humans are incapable of learning from history, and nothing proves that more than history itself. After all, the Holocaust didn’t stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or Rwanda. Or even anti-Semitism in developed countries, if recent studies are to be believed.

Also, too many historical novels take sides. There’s nothing more ridiculous than passing judgements on those who can’t answer back. If history has a point, it’s to understand, not to condemn. If you’re in any doubt, just consider that we’ll one day be judged according to some unguessable future standards that we might find horrifying. I propose that we treat our ancestors with the same respect we might hope to receive ourselves.

Right now I’m reading a lot of non-fiction – the books of Nassim Taleb about probability and randomness. Daniel Kahneman’s book about how we think. Essays by Christopher Hitchens. Stuff that challenges my preconceptions and makes me think a bit.

If you enjoyed that, then make sure you come back for more in the next posts from Damien where we'll find out about James Ellroy and get to explore the concept of free speech in a hugely thought-provoking piece. You really don't want to miss either of those.

Sunday, 22 February 2015


‘It was like the Wild West all over again, but with smart phones and better guns.’

Worm (US) opens with an intriguing, rather cinematic set-piece where a number of the main characters are introduced. Three men drive up to an oil-drilling station and the boss, Pancrazio, steps out to meet them. The bikers, members of the Sons Of Silence MC ask for a word with one of the workers, Gene Handy. Handy goes out to straighten things out while his friend Ferret watches from a safe distance. Pancrazio and Handy are very tough people and a visit from a biker gang isn’t going to phase them. Ferret, on the other hand, is a family man who is working for the benefit of his wife and child. Without revealing the outcome of the meeting, I can say that it provides a powerful opening that sets the tone extremely well and which made me want to press on quickly with the rest of the book. As opening chapters go, this is a great example to aspiring writers on how to go about things.

Neither Handy nor Pancrazio are exactly who they seem. Before long, it becomes clear that they have bigger intentions and plan to supply the oil field workers with the drugs they want to help them unwind after a hard day’s toil.

As soon as Ferret gets a sniff of this, he wants in. It’s not that he’s an experienced criminal. He just wants to earn as much cash as he can for that wife and daughter of his. Unfortunately, his naivety means he has no real concept of what’s involved in joining such an operation and getting out isn’t ever going to be as simple as handing in notice to quit.

There are twists aplenty as the trio reveal their true colours and the plot is thickened by the crooked police chief Slow Bear and Pancrazio’s wing men, Good Russell and Bad Russell.
All of this takes place in a Wild West setting. The town is out of control. The workers are after booze and women and there’s a sense of anarchy about the whole thing. The law is weak and corrupt, the oilmen are stir-crazy and powerful and the women here are out to take advantage of their situation in any way they can.

This isn’t a novel that shines a torch on the wonders of humanity. Rather it looks down into the chaos of life and the extremities of existence and refuses to shirk away from the darker crevices. Smith pushes the characters hard and their flaws are ruthlessly exposed. 
What the depths of this world also does it to bring forward unlikely heroes who emerge from the mire when it becomes deep enough.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and also admired the quality of the writing. Smith does a number of things extremely well. His work on setting is superb and there are at least four dimensions to this world. 

He deals with a huge scope and a complex plot and yet always keeps control. The dialogue is well delivered and the book is densely populated by brilliant phrases that speak volumes in few words. Add to that the constant surge of the characters and the story-line (even the back story moves forwards) and there’s one page-turning novel that will satisfy the appetite of many a crime reader. 

Friday, 13 February 2015

One Man's Opinion: UNCLE DUST by ROB PIERCE

“After enough beers, a leather jacket makes a fine blanket.”

This book grabbed my attention immediately. The cover’s fantastic. The title is superb. The publisher is All Due Respect. What more could I ask for?

I guess the answer to that is a story to match.

To my delight, the book did more than live up to my expectation.

I loved Uncle Dust. It’s a noir story of real depth.

Uncle Dustin tells the tale himself. He’s a small-time bank robber, a debt collector, an ex-con and a drinker. He’s the kind of character that you might find in a lot of novels, but author Rob Pierce does a wonderful job of exploring the whole of him rather than making his work the central line of the plot. Sure, there are some great and very engaging set-pieces as Dust shakes down a bank or deals with a failed gambler who can’t pay the bills. There are even some of the wonderful side-shows, like the doctor who’ll patch up a wounded criminal on the sly. I’d have been happy enough with all of that.
What really shines out for me is the way Dust’s relationships are explored.

He’s a fabulous creation, brought up in tough times that have moulded the way he sees the world and caused him damage that puts him beyond repair.

Dust is in a family situation when we meet him. Theresa presses 
most of his buttons in the way he’d like and her son Jeremy is in need of some direction.

The father-son relationship is particularly well explored. Jeremy is a victim. The only things he seems to be interested in are fantasy card games. Dust is happy to guide him in the direction of becoming tougher, but Dust is unable to keep to any boundaries. When he finds that Jeremy is still in contact with one of Theresa’s ex-partners, Davis, the emotions smoulder and burn. Things become much more complicated when Dust finds out that Davis controls some of the more sinister fantasy games in town and that his intentions for Jeremy may not be entirely pure.

The world is always going to go wrong for Dust. His life is always going to create wrecks along the way. As Pierce drives us forward, what isn’t clear is who is going to get hurt when the next smash happens or just how bad their injuries will be. What makes the book so engaging for me is that it’s impossible not to root for him, which makes his erring judgement really hard to handle.

Uncle Dust is told with a really strong voice. The dialogue is about perfect. The snappy lines and images are a real treat. Dust’s capacity to intimidate is alarming. The story has a number of facets that work really well together. All in all, it’s a really great book. You should try it.

Thursday, 5 February 2015


‘Brace yourself against something Roth. We’re about to jeopardise our pensions.’ Kriminalkommissar Trautmann

Berlin Burning takes place in the summer of 1932, a time when upheaval and economic depression were the order of the day and the nascent Nazi party are becoming increasingly powerful. It’s hard to imagine a more complex or engaging setting for a European crime novel.

The story begins with the central character, police detective Trautmann, trying to persuade an ex-girlfriend of his partner (Roth) to visit the man in hospital. Though not much is gleaned much of the story here, the fact that Trautmann has a burned face and Roth has previously lost an arm in the line of duty make the story that is about to unfold in flashback hugely tantalising.

The flashback begins with the reporting of a murder in an unsavoury district of the city. When Trautmann and  Roth arrive, the place is swarming with Schupo under the lead of a hard-nosed man called Kessler. Though Trautmann is going to take control of the case, it’s clear that Kessler isn’t going to let it go completely.

A young man has been murdered. His position in life helps to explain why there are so many at the scene. He’s a brownshirt and the case is therefore politically sensitive. It also happens that his girlfriend and lead suspect is Maria Fliescher, the niece of a local gangster.

There’s not a lot of evidence to go by, but Trautmann and Roth are determined to collect every scrap. In the end, their protection of the scene from the clumsy Schupo will prove crucial to their investigations.

What follows on from the murder scene is a journey of danger and adventure. As this is only a novella, it’s surprising just how much action takes place.

The plot thickens and little is quite as it initially seems. The characters are multi-faceted and are open to manipulation and misunderstanding. When the adventure slows and the plots thicken, the quick-thinking and articulate Trautmann keeps things straight - when the penny drops for him, the prospect of his reveals creates strong hooks..

The atmosphere throughout is oppressive and the tensions of the period are used well to maintain the mood.

The ending brings the complexities of the plot to a satisfying and rather surprising conclusion and the door is left open for future investigations from this intrepid pair. I’d be happy to find out more about this police duo and to watch history unfold when they go about their business. Bring it on.