Wednesday, 31 July 2019


For ten years, Maigret has been in the habit of dining with his friend Dr Pardon. Even though they don’t use each other’s Christian names, the doctor ranks among one of Maigret’s closest friends.

It’s after one such dinner that Pardon contacts Maigret to seek advice. Following their social evening, a couple arrive at the doctor’s home in the early hours, the woman needing urgent attention. The woman, a blond beauty from northern Europe, has been shot in the back and the man claims to have been an innocent bystander who found her in the street after witnessing the drive-by shooting.  Once the treatment has been given and the doctor has set about tidying up, the couple disappear, driving off in a swanky red Alfa Romeo that is later found at the airport.

The next day, a wealthy Lebanese gambler is found dead by his maid. He’s been shot and his attractive Dutch wife is nowhere to be seen. The other members of the household, an offhand secretary who is like a brother to the victim and a group of servants who work in unusual ways, appear to know nothing about anything. 

Maigret’s attempts to see behind the thick curtains or resistance that are being held firmly closed by all concerned soon come to fruition as he pieces together the evidence by following his intuition to shed light on the truth. 

The Nahour case is nicely set up and the limited cast offers a traditional whodunit of real quality. It’s tense and puzzling and a pleasure to read, though the ultimate conclusion felt a tad flimsy given the pleasure offered by the journey and the atmospheric settings.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

One Man's Opinion: THE FORCE by DON WINSLOW

Here’s another gem from Don Winslow. The kind of book that had me relishing the prospect of returning to the pages to find out how the hell things were going to play out. It’s a long, deep, fast, tense, gripping, entertaining and slightly flawed noir to my mind and one I can highly recommend.

This one’s an in-depth study of the Manhattan North task force (da Force) run by the king of the area Detective Sergeant Denny Malone and his team. They rule their patch with a mixture of power and fear and the more subtle art of building relationships and finding balances. There are snitches, murderers, victims, bosses, addicts, pushers, family and politicians to juggle, so ruling the land isn’t an easy business. Throw in the rivalries between gangs and their drug-lords and the racial tensions of the city and it’s one hell of a melting pot. 

The dynamics of the team are altered dramatically following the death of the darling of the bunch, Billy O. Not only does it leave the band of brothers devastated, it leads them into a new level of corruption that they may never have imagined. 

The disintegration, or rather the re-defining, of the moral code in the task force is a slow process. It’s been happening from the early days of their careers and has build up one tiny step after another, toe-by-toe movements to begin with, giant strides as time has gone on. 

It’s not long before internal affairs and the Federal Bureau get involved and Malone is forced to cross a line he never imagined he could be forced over. He’s on a slippery slope and even with his strong and determined fingers, he slowly loses control of the information he is expected to provide. 

As the world closes in, it’s impossible to imagine an ending the story that will satisfy every need. As much as I was desperate to find out how things played out, I also wanted to see how a master could close out the game. Truth be told, it’s a master stroke and the satisfaction as I read the final page was immense. 

The Force (US) is a great read and an epic one. It has all the ingredients of a thriller that you could possible want. The emotional engagement is total and the intensity of the involvement is high. 

Not that this is my favourite Winslow read. There were a couple of issues, some of them personal, that I’ve been trying to work out since finishing. 

Mr Winslow often has a rather poetic style that builds into rhythms and paces which are beautiful to behold. I didn’t feel them here, which is perhaps because of the nature of this beast. I missed that aspect to the read. 

There are also sections where the momentum changes significantly. This is inevitable. After running at a sprint for long sections, there has to be space to take a breather. A couple of times this switch was jarring. This sometimes comes in the form of the nostalgic tales of police work. They're wonderful in their own right and add the background I love, but they are by nature reflective and therefore can stand in the way of the movement of the story. It’s a small thing, but I’m mentioning it anyway. 

And the big one for me lies in the whole perspective of watching the corrupt world of systems designed to protect. There’s a quote from Stephen King on the cover of my copy, ‘Think The Godfather, only with cops’, which is actually nicely put. When we’re dealing with gangsters and criminals, the fact that they can are butchers capable of the lowest acts of depravity can be romanticised by the sense of loyalty, order and regulation. When respect and honour are brought into play, the darkest villain can be viewed sympathetically. Turning this on its head isn’t so easy. Where you start with a code that’s pure in its intention and corrupt the hell out of it, those codes and bonds may be strong, but it’s far more difficult to sympathise with dirty cops than honourable scum. The guys of the force are absolute bastards in the way they rule their streets, vent their prejudices and treat their loved ones. Even when the point is made that the work and the success of keeping peace and order requires a certain level of toughness and demands that the cops see and experience things none of the rest of us would want to even think about, it’s an uneasy shift. Winslow did manage to drag me in to root for these guys and that is a testament to his level of skill. Every so often, though, the levels of behaviour gave me a swift kick to remind me that there was thinking to be done. The opening of the book lists the names (three pages worth) of law enforcement personnel who were murdered in the line of duty during the period of writing. It’s a brilliant mark of respect and a frighteningly long list, so what follows in terms of the corruption is magnified in intensity and is even harder to swallow. 

Now the dust has settled for me, a week on from my read, as well as the strength of the story the unpicking of the tiers of the justice and the political system stick hard and fast. It seems like the further one rises up the ladder, the bigger the payouts become. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and I know that it’s only a work of fiction but the levels of are stomach churning. I was left feeling angry about so many things and wonder if I can channel that anger into ways of making changes in some way. Having just witnessed the arrival of Boris Johnson at Number 10, I have to wonder if things can ever really be changed as another product of wealth and the elite private education takes the reins and sets up cabinet to reflect whatever underhand and unethical promises were made during his campaign for leadership. 

Meanderings over. 

You should read this one. 

And when you do, may da force be with you.

Friday, 19 July 2019


Mme Monde jumps the queue at the police station using the arrogance of status to set up an appointment with the superintendent. Her husband has gone missing, leaving her in a difficult financial position that requires that he be found. 

Monsieur Monde, however, has no intention of being located. Nobody has noticed it was his 48th birthday and, unless he does something drastic, his anniversaries will remain unmarked until he reaches the grave. The stifling world of work, respectability, the disappointment in his family and his mundane routines are the sum of his protected life and he finally decides to do something he has longed for before – to leave it all behind and start again by joining the people he has observed getting on with things without pretention or expectation. 

He removes a huge amount of cash from the bank, trades his tailored suit in for something off the peg, shaves off his moustache and boards the train for Marseilles. 

From his hotel room, he overhears the violent breakup of a couple and, worrying for the safety of the woman involved, goes to intervene. Before long, he and Julie are joined at the hip. She’s free and easy in her skin and it’s not long before their relationship becomes physical. 

They head to Nice, home of minor celebrities and those in search of a good time. An unfortunate series of events follows, though Monsieur Monde is untroubled. It’s precisely the challenges of daily life and the weightlessness of lacking purpose that he sought. He winds up working in an illegal gambling establishment where his job involves the careful observation of the clientele. All seems to be going well until the appearance of the morphine-addled Empress and her sidekick, who just happens to be Monde’s first wife. Action is required and Monde is once again reminded that it takes more than the removal of a moustache to change one’s way of being. 

This is a story that really had me hooked. It’s difficult not to care for M. Monde from the off, to admire his decision and his courage. In waiting for everything to work out, each of his actions and encounters adds a new layer of tension. The stifling world of cheap hotel rooms and seedy bars offers Monde a sense of liberation as he sucks in the simple pleasures of the world. The cold ways of his wife are a polar opposite to the honest affection of Julie and his new friends. The freedom of his daily grind is a stark change from the mechanical motions of success. 

All in all, it’s a terrific piece that falls slightly short as it wraps up. The ending was unexpected and, though satisfying , there may have been a more engaging conclusion. My favourite sections all came early on, those following the thought processes of Monde as he decides to take the leap and is taken up by the flow of life like a leaf in a fast-flowing river.  

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Indie Crime Crawl 2019

Small Presses = Life Blood for titles and talent that don't get a look in on the mainstream shelves. It helps to encourage new writing that isn't constrained by the need to make a huge profit and, therefore, allows freedom to be whatever an author wants to be. 

Not that the small presses don't need to make money. It takes effort and commitment to keep an independent publisher going and a little reward for that effort, whether that be to compensate for some of the time invested, to offer encouragement that it's worth carrying on or to help to keep afloat and invest in future titles really matters. Buying a book or two is a great way to offer support, to say thanks and to ensure the material you enjoy reading continues to be available. 

It's even easier to do that when you purchase a title during the Indie Crime Crawl. I'm a little late to the party, but if you purchase a book before the 21st July directly from the publisher, you'll get a range of deals. Check out what's on offer by following #indiecrimecrawl over on Twitter.  

I believe the Down and Out Books family are offering 20% discount (by applying the code indiecc20) or 25% discount for purchases totalling $50 or more (using indiecc25). 

There's some pretty cool merchandise out there, too, if your shelves are already croaking. 

The list of those involved is on the picture at the top of the post and none of them will disappoint, I'm sure. 

Go check it out. You know you want to: 

Shotgun Honey
Down And Out Books
All Due Respect
Polis Books
Prospect Park Books
Fahrenheit Press
69 Crime
ECW Press 
Red Dog Press
Run Amok Books
Orenda Books
Crippen and Landru
The Dome Press

Wednesday, 17 July 2019


A body is found in the Bois de Boulogne, face bashed in and in an unnatural position. Fumel, acting on instinct, calls Superintendant Maigret even though it’s against current procedural policy. 

Maigret knows the victim, but is unable to take an active role because he’s investigating a series of armed robberies in his beloved Paris. His curiosity, however, has been sparked and he can’t help becoming involved. He immerses himself in the world of the victim (the Swiss, Honore Cuendet). Maigret’s affection and respect for the dead burglar grow as he learns more about the victim’s solitary, self-contained lifestyle. 

With typical attention to detail, old-fashioned police work and the odd slice of good fortune, both cases are eventually solved, though only one is taken to its full conclusion. 

The beauty of Idle Burglar lies in the revealing insights into Maigret’s feelings. As an old man, he’s acutely aware of the changes in the world of the police and in his city. The vulnerability this creates allows him to take chances and set about pleasing himself more than ever: he shares information with his wife; leaves the office whenever he pleases; and shows real tenderness to Cuendet’s mother and respect and friendship to his long-term colleagues. These dimensions add a little extra to the usual Simenon and place this right at the top of the Maigret tree. 

And if there ever was a book to get you hankering of a simple life of wine sipping and world watching, this is probably it.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019


‘Wayne’s features were compressed toward the middle of his face, folding into one another, so he looked like a piece of fruit that had begun to rot.’

I love being totally immersed in a book. The feeling of being swept up in a story. The range of emotions a quality writer can create simply by putting words onto a page. The change of head from the stresses of your own life to those of others. There’s little better if you ask me. 

So, many thanks George Pelecanos for taking me out of my skin for the last few days. I’m extremely grateful for that. 

The Way Home (US) is a cracking novel. It opens with the tale of Chris Flynn’s teenage years. He’s not gifted enough to excel in school or to enjoy the experience and his raging hormones and youthful anger are quick to take control of him. He likes to fight - it’s something he does well. He likes a drink and a smoke and enjoys driving. When all these things come together in one explosive evening, he finally stretches things too far and ends up in a prison for young offenders.

Chris’s father isn’t too impressed by his son’s exploits. Truth is, he’s hurt by the direction Chris has chosen and can’t see his boy as anything other than a disappointment and can’t understand how things turned out the way they did. If he was a little wiser, he might see that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree and Chris, in so many ways, is simply following in his father’s footsteps. 

Prison life brings challenges to those incarcerated. There’s a heavy slice set between the institutions walls and this section is highly engaging, in spite of the fact that it’s back story. What it does is set the foundations for what is to come and, because they’re expertly handled, the trenches are deep and the structure is all the stronger for that. 

 Part Three of the novel sees Chris and his prison buddies doing their best to get along on the outside. Chris works for his father laying carpets with his friend, Ben, a warm-hearted young man damaged during his early years. They’re in touch with Ali, who spends his life trying to rehabilitate those who are on the slippery slopes of life and with Lawrence, a difficult character who’s making the best of a bad job and just about managing to keep himself afloat.

When Chris and Ben find a bag of cash under the floorboards of a house they’re working on, they are faced with a difficult decision. They weigh up the benefits with the potential danger of taking the cash and lave the bag where it is. But $50K is a difficult thing to keep secret and it’s not long before word is out and the money is gone.

Enter the owners of the money. They’re not happy bunnies and their own experiences of life behind bars have sucked out anything of their gentler sides. They’re prepared to go to any length to get back what’s theirs. 

And so the pace and the compulsion to read on really ratchets up until it’s practically unbearable.

To me, this one’s all about loyalty, whether that’s earned or misplaced. The father-son relationship, stretched to the limit over the years is reshaped as the story unfolds. The bonds between the prison crew of Unit 5 are deeply embedded. The new relationships between the young men and their partners may be at fledging stages, but have gone beyond fooling around to something much more important. And the family ties are ever present for all of them, influencing and moulding their lives for better or for worse. These relationships lay at the books core and at the heart of the decisions of each of the characters. The crime element of the story may be white hot, but it’s the people that hold it over the flame. 

The addition of each layer is a wonder. It appears without you noticing it’s being put together. The dialogue is as good as it gets and the strands bind tight when you need them to. 

It’s a drama about loyalties, lives and growing up. It’s also food for thought, offering an insight into the role of the prison system for young offenders by shining a beacon on the need for reform.

In short, it’s a bloody good read. 

Out of ten? Top marks.

Saturday, 15 June 2019


That's All Right FREE TODAY (US)

Ray Spalding's had enough of his wife, Paula. He's left his home in Edinburgh's Southside and headed for Belfast. It's safer there.

Unknown to Ray, Paula's also had enough of him. She's not going back home. Not now, not ever.

Jesse Spalding wakes up one morning to find both his parents gone. And he can't tell anyone or he'll be taken into care.

As time passes and bills need paying, all Jesse can rely on are his wits, his friend Archie and his dad's 1950s record collection.

Southsiders is a powerful short novel that follows the spiralling fortunes of Ray and Jesse, pushing father and son to their limits while they struggle against the odds in the darker shadows of two of Britain's capital cities.

Jailhouse Rock FREE TODAY (US

It doesn’t take long for Ray Spalding to realise that prison is nothing like an Elvis Presley movie. The warden has no intention of throwing a party and the only bands Ray encounters are gangs of hard men. When an old adversary seeks him out, Ray decides his only chance for survival is escape.

Ray’s son, Jesse, is discovering that being on the run in the middle of winter is no fun. With his stamina stretched to the limits, he’s ready to surrender himself to social services. At least that way he can see his girlfriend again.

Danny Boy is the man in the middle. He thinks he can break Ray from prison and reunite father and son. All he needs is an ambulance, a funeral, the help of some of his old friends and a big slice of good fortune.

Southsiders: Jailhouse Rock takes you for an eventful ride on a Mystery Train where the destination is as likely to be the Heartbreak Hotel as the Promised Land. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2019


Given that SE Hinton penned several of my favourite books and that my own Southsiders series is based in the world of teenagers, I didn’t hesitate when the opportunity arose to pick up a review copy of Jen Conley’s Seven Ways To Get Rid Of Harry (US).

It’s a great idea. Danny Zeko’s hormones are taking control. He’s facing up to having to find his place in the school pecking order and the early onset of romantic ideas about the opposite sex at the same time as he’s dealing with the death of his father. His life is a whirlpool and, most of the time, he’s just trying to get by and work it all out. Problem is, the world keeps getting in the way. 

There’s the school system, for a start. Danny can’t seem to do anything right. It’s not helped that he has a temper and is quick to resort to violence, but there’s plenty of injustice and he feels ever ounce of it keenly. 

Throw in Danny's peers. They're all in the same cauldron, scrabbling about to rise to the top of the broth and not many of them care whose shoulders, heads and fingers they have to stand or break to get there. 

And then there’s the Harry of the title. He’s the new love of Danny’s mum’s life. There’s constant drinking and fighting in the house and he picks on Danny and his sister with the meanness of an accomplished bully. When it becomes clear that Harry’s about to move in, Danny decides he has to get rid of him. Along with his close friend, he comes up with various schemes to cut the man out of his life forever. These range from the simple tactical to extreme interventions. And he puts his plans into action, too. Problem is, they tend to backfire and paint the world in darker shades. 

There’s a lot to like about this tale. It’s fresh, different and well-paced. The characters are well-drawn and I particularly enjoy the way that Conley plays with them so that the balance of good and bad in everyone makes it difficult to work out precisely what to feel. There’s a nostalgic element, too, not so much for the period (partly because my early teens were in the previous decade) as for the time of life and the awful complications involved in surviving the growing up process. And then there's the fact that I imagine most of us have played around with the idea of getting rid of someone in our lives at some time (right?) and enjoy watching someone else take on the challenge for us.

As the book moves on, the sense that Harry needs to be wiped off the planet intensifies and the seeming impossibility of the outcome is painful to endure. This puts a lot of pressure on the author to pull off a stunt or some underhand trickery as an ending. What she does instead is take us to an unexpected place that fits the bill perfectly. It’s a satisfying tie up that keeps its feet on the floor and is all the more powerful for the lack of bells and whistles.

Don’t be put off by the likely Young Adult tag this book will carry. If there’s justice, Seven Ways will find success among Danny’s contemporaries and may even lure a few reluctant readers to its pages. It would be even fairer if it were to gather some momentum among readers of all ages. It certainly worked for me.   

Monday, 10 June 2019


There are two journeys in this novella. 

The first is a physical one. A nightmare of sorts. It’s Roger who’s taking the trip. Picked up at gunpoint, he travels round on a ghost train where every stop is full of unpleasant surprises. 

The second is an internal voyage, Roger struggling to work out what’s happening, how he’s feeling and what he’s going to do about his situation. 

Both overlap to produce a curious perspective of the evening. By watching the events unfold and also hearing a commentary of sorts, the views blur into one with neither carrying more weight than the other. It’s a bit like looking through a stereoscope and taking a while to adjust to the view until it creates a 3-Dimensional gem that drifts in and out of focus like the dreams of broken sleep. Which is what D’Stair does. He creates a gem of a story that is as unsettling as it is vividly real. 

From the beginning, it’s clear that this is no ordinary work. There are no dots to join up, no templates to offer comfort and no traditional plot lines to guide us through. In many ways we’re on our own, just like Roger. And to make matters worse, it’s as if we’re right in there and holding the camera, Blair Witch style, witnessing the horrendous events unfold. Like Roger himself, we’ve been kidnapped and taken on a journey we’d rather have nothing to do with. 

I've never read a D'Stair story that I haven't thoroughly enjoyed and Man Standing Behind is no exception. It has the hallmark snappiness in the dialogue, the laconic phrasing and the exceptional observation of detail as well as the disorientation of being taken into the unknown.

Which is my review. If you have no more idea of what the book's about than when you came along, then I reckon I've pretty much done my job. It's an intense and gripping piece and I think you should give it a read. Just don't expect sweetness and light. 

Great stuff. 

Saturday, 27 April 2019


I was fortunate enough to be asked to edit this for All Due Respect and, as can happen when a book is written with high quality and significant emotional stakes, it really was a labour of love. 

Lou-Lou has finally broken free of her father, local gangster Big Bobby Joe. He's a scary guy with a twisted mind and a thirst for violence. Losing Lou-Lou is itself a blow, but the fact that she's eloping with her black boyfriend adds a further dimension that means no stone is going to be unturned in order to get her back. 

Bobby Joe puts out a bounty on the couple and the lowlife of the area crawl out of the woodwork to try and earn a buck. Among them is drug snorter Tommy who arranges to meet with Mikey, the Guillotine of the title. Mikey's trademark is serving up heads on platters and Tommy reckons he knows just how they can team up a and split Joe's sixty-thousand dollars. 

Mikey's not interested in the deal. He carries a small torch for Lou-Lou himself and they'd have made a good fit if they'd managed to stick together when they first hit it off. 

The story unfolds to become increasingly claustrophobic. Lou-Lou's hope turns into desperate defiance, Mikey's disengagement with the world is put on hold, Tommy takes things further than he could ever have imagined and Big Bobby Joe simply gets meaner and more spiteful the more we get to know him.

The storyline is strong and nicely plotted, adding tension gradually while never losing sight of the motivations of the key characters. There's plenty of action to keep things moving, yet there are also some great introspective set-pieces where the exploration of fear and pain is fully mined. 

Guillotine's sharp and exciting as well as being moving and powerful. I recommend this as compelling noir that's definitely a cut above. 

Guillotine US UK

Tuesday, 9 April 2019


‘The way Sheryn Sterling was feeling, it might not have been the best idea to put a knife in her hand.’

Sheryn Sterling has a new working partner and an old grudge. The partner is Rafael Mendoza, the grudge Alex Traynor.

Traynor is a photojournalist who is doing his best to cope with life on the civilian streets of New York. His previous work in a number of war zones has left him scarred. He’s suffering from PTSD and has struggled on and off with self-medication. Sterling’s beef with him is that she believes he is responsible for the death of Cori Stanton who fell from the roof of his building a year before the story is set. When his current girlfriend, Dr Emily Teare, goes missing, Sterling fears that history is repeating itself and goes out hell-for-leather to pin Traynor down once and for all. When she finds blood on the carpet of Traynor’s house, she’s quick to add the numbers together and the book is well-written enough to have us unsure as to whether two and two will equal three, four or five.

Traynor is confused. Following a PTSD episode, he returns home to find a strange woman in his apartment and making a break for it through the window to the fire escape. He’s quick on his feet and manages to prevent her from leaving. She can’t explain her presence, nor is she able to tell him where Emily is. Whatever her reason, things don’t look right and Traynor realises that Emily is in some kind of trouble.

There are two key strands to this novel. In the first, we follow Traynor as he attempts to find Emily. In the second, Sterling is attempting to nail Traynor before he can harm anyone else. The unfolding of each element is paced nicely and each compliments the other in a way that builds the tension and continually twists and turns along the uneven path of the who-did-what-to-whom-and-why?

There’s a real web of mystery here. There are whiffs of suspicion about everyone we meet. Nobody is quite who they seem at first glance and the ambiguity keeps us on our toes. We can’t be sure about anything that happened on the night Cori died as Traynor was too high to remember. There are dodgy goings on with prescriptions. The superintendent of the building has his own reasons to play his cards close to his chest. Traynor’s lawyer needs to know enough information to help the situation, but not too much to jeopardise his client’s freedom. Cori’s father is unhinged and determined that the law finds justice for his daughter’s death. Sterling realises her own motivations may be clouding her judgement. Friend Will Sipher is still dabbling with drugs and is able to keep a cool head even when the chips are down. And Emily? You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

Davidson does a really nice job of keeping everything just out of focus. At the point at which things begin to sharpen a new dimension opens up and clouds things over once more. It’s a little like wiping the mist from a mirror in a steamy bathroom; for a while you can see your face and then the moment’s gone. 

Throughout One Small Sacrifice (US), you'll grab hold of one red-herring while risking losing your grip on another and it's likely all your theories will be in tatters by the end.

Very entertaining and available for pre-order now. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2019


Here's a book that's just been re-released that's more than worthy of your attention. Down and Out books have had the foresight and understanding of quality to put this one out and it's one that needs noting. 

This is an old review that I posted at Goodreads a good while ago. The references may be dated, but the book most certainly isn't:

It's not easy to define Patti Abbott's talent, for indeed that's what she is. I notice that Ken Bruen was hailing her in the intro to Grimm Tales where he suggests that she'll be up for an Edgar this time around for her entry.

If that's the case, I fear that story has competition - from every one of the entries in Monkey Justice.

They are crime stories in the main, but they go beyond the run-of-the-mill telling of events and flow over into detail in every way a reader might require. Setting, character and plot merge into perfection.

I read a lot of short stories. It's something I love. Monkey Justice (US) ranks up with the best collections out there and you should check it out. That way, you'll be able to say you were aware of her talent ahead of the masses.

Should she choose to aim for the stars, this lady will go much further than the barn roof.


Don't say I didn't tell you, but give her and her publisher some support by picking up a copy. They deserve that at the very least.  

Saturday, 9 March 2019

One Man's Opinion: WILLNOT by JAMES SALLIS

Willnot is a town that lies out on the edge of the world. The community has its quirks and routines, all of which are unsettled by the discovery of human remains. While this is happening, a soldier returns home and the FBI are keen to find him. 

At the centre of the town is Dr Lamar Hale. He has a finger in lots of pies. His work at the hospital means that he sees everyone and has an understanding of each individual history. He has access to the bodies that have been found and has the ear of the local police chief. His partner, Richard, is a teacher who feels his way through education with his heart and manages to find hope where others would see none. And there’s a cat called Dickens. 

In terms of the plot, there’s not much I feel I can pass on. Though the main events pop up every now and then to take things forward, there’s a lot of back story and introspection on the part of the doctor. There are vignettes on healing and dying and on key families in the area and there are plenty of musings on Dr Hale’s writer father. There’s also an other-worldliness about Hale and the returning soldier. Both had episodes in their youth where they were in a coma and both seem able to disappear into a different plane whether consciously choosing to or not. 

Truth be told, I think I may have missed something with this novel. I wonder if my mind drifted away when a crucial piece of information was delivered. I know Sallis to be a fine writer and I’ve loved a number of his books. The way the literary and philosophical mingle with the crime stories is usually a plus, but in this case I think there needed to be more of a consistent crime angle to keep me hungry. Because of the meandering, I feel I lost the sense of drive (excuse the pun) and it took me longer to finish than I might have expected. 

Will I be highlighting this novel as one of Sallis’s best? The answer to that one is the title itself.  

Friday, 8 March 2019

Newcastle Noir 2019

The programme for Newcastle Noir has just been released and it offers a feast of entertainment for fans of crime fiction. The list of authors is terrific and there’s such a mix that there’s something there for everyone. 

I’m delighted to be part of it this year. I’ll be part of a panel including Paul Heatley, Alan Parks and Tony Hutchinson. We’ll be exploring the gritty side of noir fiction. Our event will be on Sunday 5th May at 10:30am and the programme reads:

‘Nasty makes the noir world go round and these authors play it as dirty as it comes. Their fiction is as raw as it is real, a bad-to-the-bone ride to dark places where nothing is off limits and every bite draws blood.’

That will do very nicely, thank you very much. 

Check out the festival here and see if you can’t find something to get you salivating. 

Of course, a weekend can be a long time and crime fiction may not be something you want buzzing round your head for all of that time, so I thought I’d pass on a few of my favourite Newcastle (and surrounding area) things to do. 

We were there last weekend, minus our studying daughter. She’s been working hard for her National 5s and couldn’t afford the distraction (or so she said). It was the first time she has been home alone for a night and, thankfully, everything was still standing when we returned. 

We managed to get to three galleries this time around. 

The Baltic Gallery is a must. You don’t really have to see the work inside to enjoy it. The building is a thing of beauty, the infinite staircase a fascination and the view from the top is stunning. What I like about the Baltic is that it has never failed to rouse a range of emotions. I love a lot of the work they’ve exhibited and I’ve hate a fair bit, too. I take that as a good thing – I don’t go along to be wowed, but to be challenged. Highlight this time for me (and this will still be open over Newcastle Noir’s weekend) is the Baltic Artist’s Award 2019. Three artists are on display and I was moved to the edge of tears by much of the work. Truly powerful. 

The Side Gallery is also a total winner. It’s a small and intimate space, but they make the most of it by showing photographs that are stunning. Currently on show is called Small Town Inertia by Jim Mortram, a hard-hitting set of portraits of people struggling to get by, to be heard or to be visible. This one won’t be there in May, but if you’re there before, check it out. 

The Laing Gallery is a different space again. Walking through the doors to be greeted by Henry Moore’s Seated Woman With A Thin Neck is the best kind of welcome. Look out for Shot Boy by Ken Currie – haunting in every way. 

Grainger Market is a classy undercover space that ticks lots of my boxes. Cheap fruit and veg, second hand books, stylish shoes, delicious eats and lots more besides. You want it, you’ll probably find it and if you like a bargain, check it out. 

Talking of bargains, Newcastle is blessed with some top charity shops. We always find something and they’re not priced in the rip-off range that some places insist upon these days. 

The Quayside market is a Sunday morning treat. After you’ve popped along to our event and decided to hang around to catch the lovely Helen Fitzgerald, you can stroll down here to pick up an exotic lunch and a present for your loved ones back home. 

There was the cat cafe down by the quayside. I’ve never been to one before and wasn’t sure how I would take to it. The coffee wasn’t the best, but the cats were cool and the atmosphere was perfectly chilled. My kids loved it and can’t wait to go back.

We went in to a climbing facility at the top of the Eldon Square shopping centre for the first time. It’s similar to others we’ve been to and lots of fun. My two loved it and while they were scaling the heights, we took the chance to soak up some of that art I mentioned earlier. 

The Discovery Museum was on hand to help us pass the final hour before out train was due. There’s lots to see and do and if it’s raining and you’re not sure of where to go this is one of the best places to take shelter. 

We managed all of that in around twenty-four hours. It helps that the city is compact and vibrant and well worth a visit at any time of year. 

Other places we love there that we didn’t make it to this time around:

St James’s Park. It’s a great stadium. I took my son to see his beloved Spurs at the beginning of the season and we also went down to see Wolves showing their fangs. The Magpies are at home to Liverpool on Saturday 4th May, so the city and the pitch will be buzzing.

Whitley Bay’s a beautiful place to see the sea. A Metro or a bus will take you there from the centre with ease if you have a little more time to spare. 

Tynemouth Metro station has a Sunday market that has it all. Even if you don’t fancy buying anything, it has a lovely atmosphere and there’s plenty to do in the area if you like browsing, walking or checking out historical buildings (the castle and priory is just at the end of the street).

The Victoria Tunnel is an ace adventure. Take a walk underground and hear some great stories of past lives from expert volunteer guides. We loved it. 

The Biscuit Factory is a gallery we also like to get to every once in a while. It’s commercial in the sense that it’s selling work, offering a space to artists and craftspeople everywhere to get their pieces seen. There’s a huge variety again and there’s always something to catch the eye or to feed the spirit.

For those with time on their hands, a trip on a boat across the Tyne to South Shields is a treat in itself. It’s even more exciting if you pop into The Word, a stylish library that’s full of light and, well, books. 

And the place I’ve not visited, but have always meant to, is Seven Stories. I hear good things. If you have young children who love books, I reckon this should be on your radar.  

Which about wipes me out for now. I’m not a drinker or a clubber and the city is famous for its nightlife. Just turn up and wander around and you’ll find a suitable home if that’s what you’re after.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s simply a reflection of personal experience. Basically, Newcastle is a terrific city that’s full of warmth and energy. It’s a great place to visit. It’s a wonderful venue for a classy crime fiction festival

If you get along on the Sunday morning, come along and say hi. Unlike my fiction, I don’t bite.

Sunday, 17 February 2019


Don't Skip Out On Me

Don’t Skip Out On Me (US) is a story. It’s lots of stories. It’s lots of stories about lots of people who are just getting by living their lives. They’re stories that will be familiar to everyone who ever grew up or moved on or got old, and may be just as familiar to anyone who did none of those things.

The novel focuses on two main characters.

Horace Hooper is a farm hand who handles horses and dogs with a confidence he can’t quite manage with other people. His dream is to become a boxing world champion, which means he needs to move on from the world in which he’s comfortable. Part Irish, part Paiute, he’s keen to shed both of those identities and wants to be known as a Mexican. He has the looks to get away with that ambition, but his poor understanding of Spanish, his dislike of spicy food and his aversion to extreme heat prove to be something of a hindrance.  In his favour, he possesses a number of assets in relation to his boxing dreams. He can hit hard as hell and he can take as many punches as any opponent can throw. With a fair wind and a good trainer, he has the potential to go far. This being a Willy Vlautin book, the hard edge of reality isn’t going to make that easy. Finding a trainer who’s not out to make a buck is a tough job, as is entering the boxing world without any reputation to fall back upon. 

While Horace struggles to make it through the early stages of turning pro, his mentor in life and father figure (Mr Reese) continues to try and keep the farm going without its star man. Horace’s departure has sent ripples through everything. The dynamics between workers and between Mr and Mrs Reese are all shot. Joy has left the world and the notion of struggling to simply carry on isn’t an attractive option. Thankfully, Mr Reese has experience in spades. He’s one of those rare wise characters in fiction that actually makes sense. His own thoughts on how to live a life are more powerful even than the philosophies Horace has crafted from an old book he once found. As their worlds weave together and fray, the old man’s patience and words seem destined to help out the young pretender and the further the story goes on, the more I was rooting for Horace to pay heed.

Don’t Skip Out On Me is a superb read. It generated the kind of awe and wonder that rarely catch me these days, the sort that leaves most of us when we stop believing in such things as Santa, fairy tales and happy endings. 

I’m going to say it’s a boxing story and, like the best of the genre, it’s far much more besides. The pace of the read is generally slow and thoughtful, though it ramps up when Horace enters the ring. For a boxing tale, this one did something unusual - had me hoping the protagonist might lose a fight and have his dreams killed. The journey he faces on and off the canvas is so difficult to observe that I found it impossible to remove my eyes and could hardly bear to watch.

What I think Vlautin does is this. I think he manages to fill your heart up with warmth and life while at the same time he’s breaking that same heart and emptying it of everything. That’s the constant of the book for me, the experience of having these two actions in balance at the same time.

As in all balancing acts, things can’t stay in equilibrium forever. In the end, either the happiness or the sadness is going to tilt the scale. I won’t say which way it tips in this case, I’ll just tell you that when you finish your journey, you’ll have white knuckles and a realisation that you actually need to draw breath before you pass out. 

Bottom line is I loved this. A real kind of love. The kind Horace may have found in the back of the cinema while the sun burned outside. If you’ve read a Vlautin before, you’ll have a good idea of what I mean. If you haven’t, then it’s time to do something about it.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

There Might Not Be an ‘I’ in TEAM But There is a ‘Cool’ in Collaboration
A Grifter's Song

So I caught up with myself recently at the perfect place to talk about teamwork, a hockey game.

Q:  Who’s winning?

A:  They are, but we’re outnumbered.

Q: They have more players?

A: No, it’s us against them and the refs. The calls in this game are brutal so far.

Q:  Yeah, huh? Well, I wanted to ask you about collaboration. Specifically, the different writers you’ve collaborated with over the last seven years or so –

A:  Save it. I’m on a panel at Left Coast Crime about this same topic. Just sit in on that. It’ll be fun.

Q:  Well, that’s not until March, and it’s in Vancouver, so….

A:  It’s no worries. They’ve got hockey in Vancouver.

Q:  Maybe just a preview?

A:  [focused on the game] Come on! Did you see that? Obvious hooking penalty. Hey, Ref! Check your voicemail! You’ve missed several calls!

Q:  Let’s try this:  any of your co-authors like hockey?

A:  [waves a hand dismissively] I don’t think so. Even though there are perfectly good hockey teams right here in Spokane, Colin Conway is a football fan. Well, a Cleveland Browns fan. Is that still football?

Q:  Technically. I think.

A:  Well, then there you go. You know, Colin was the first writer I ever collaborated with on a novel. We wrote Some Degree of Murder way back in 2005. It was finally published in 2012, and Down and Out Books is re-issuing it in March of this year.

Q:  How was that experience?

A:  Great. Colin and I are the same wavelength, but we see things differently enough to bring our own contributions to the project. Mostly, though, I think what makes our partnership work so well is that we both subordinate our own ego to what’s best for the book. It’s a team approach. [points to the ice] Like them.

Q:  So just the one book with Colin?

A:  Oh, hell no. We’ve got Charlie-316 coming out in June of 2019. Might be my best book yet. It’s the first of a four-book arc that will be released each June.

Q:  Sounds like a good thing you’ve got going there.

A:  It is. I invited him to be part of A Grifter’s Song, too.

Q:  That’s a great segue, actually, because I wanted to ask you about that project.

A:  [stands and yells something I can’t print]

Q:  What happened?

A:  Another missed call. They just boarded our best player.

Q:  Boarded?

A:  That’s when –

Q:  Never mind. A Grifter’s Song?

A:  Oh, yeah. Well, it’s a serial novella anthology featuring a pair of grifters, Sam and Rachel. They are devoted to each other, but everyone else in the world is up for grabs. They tried to rip off the Philly mob, so they are on the run from them. Each episode has a complete story arc to it – a con that gets resolved – but there is also a meta-arc throughout the entire series.

Q:  How long will it be?

A:  Two seasons of six episodes each.

Q:  You talk about it like it’s a television show.

A:  That’s been our approach. It’s like a short run Netflix series, something like Ozark. I wrote the first episode and will write the last one, too. But in between that, ten other authors will each write an episode apiece. I’m editing.

Q:  Who are we talking about here?

Q:  And readers just buy whatever episodes they want?

A:  They can. Or they can subscribe to the season.

Q:  This is digital only, right?

A:  Just for the initial release dates. Each episode drops at the first of the month, starting with my own The Concrete Smile in January. After the season ends, the stories will be collected into a pair of paperbacks, too.

Q:  So why subscribe?

A:  Easy.  Subscribers get a price break that equates to one episode for free, automated delivery/free shipping, and a subscriber only bonus episode that takes place between the two seasons.

Q:  Where do I sign up?

A:  Down and Out Books. Eric Campbell created the subscription model and I think some other projects are going to use the same model.

Q:  When you rattled off those names, I noticed a pattern. Almost every author you’ve collaborated with has an episode of A Grifter’s Song.

A:  True. But I think it’s important that we help each other out in this community.

Q:  So you’re helping out your friends?

A:  Or they’re helping me. Probably both, really.  Look, in hockey, everyone gets excited about the goal. But most of the time, the puck does not go into the net unless a lot of people on the ice make it happen. Sure, there are spectacular players who make amazing plays once in a while, but other times, it is the assist that makes the play successful. And that’s not even counting the important things that people on and off the ice do that never make it on the score sheet.

Q:  You lost me…

A:  I’m saying a lot goes into making a book a success. Yeah, the writer does a lion’s share of the work. But so does an editor. So does a publisher, and the cover artist, and other authors who blurb, and reviewers who give an honest review, and readers who talk up the book…you see what I’m saying? These are like the coaches, athletic therapists, scouts, GM, mascots, fans…capisce?

Q:  Got it. So I noticed Jim Wilsky on the list.

A:  You did. Jim and I have written four books together in the Ania series: Blood on Blood, Queen of Diamonds, Closing the Circle, and the prequel that just came out in December, Harbinger.

Q:  You must like the guy, if you’ve written four books together.

A:  Hate him. But the guy can write.

Q:  You hate him?!

A:  No, moron. That was a joke. Jim’s awesome. But I meant it when I said he can write.

Q:  Another good experience, I take it?

A:  Absolutely. Different is some ways from working with Colin but that it was a smooth, great time was much the same. Jim has great ideas, and came up with three of the four titles.

Q:  Eric Beetner was in on A Grifter’s Song, too.

A:  Yup. That’s ‘cause he’s the hardest working man in crime fiction.

Q:  I don’t know what that means.

A:  Go to his website. Follow him on Twitter. You’ll figure it out. The guy is relentless.

Q:  You two wrote the Bricks & Cam Job series together.

A:  Yeah, though we sometimes call it The List series.

Q:  Because…?

A:  The Backlist, The Short List, The Getaway List. Notice a pattern?

Q:  I see it now. What was it like working with Eric?

A:  Fast. The man writes at Mach 70 or something. And the first draft is so clean.

Q:  Why do you think that is?

A:  He hates to edit. Which makes sense, given his day job as an editor.

Q:  Besides fast, how would you describe your work with him?

A:  Easy. Eric is quite possibly the nicest guy out there. Strong in his convictions and driven, but still nice. Funny story – for the longest time, we’d only ever corresponded via email. Something like four years of that. I used to call him the nicest guy I never met.

Q:  You’ve met, though, right?

A:  Oh, yeah. I was on his podcast, Writer Types, and he came on mine, Wrong Place, Write Crime. We finally met in person at Bouchercon in 2018.

Q:  That seems more and more common. Long distance, digital friendships, that is.

A:  It is. I’ve not met Jim in person yet. Nor Larry.

Q:  That’s Lawrence Kelter?

A:  Yeah. He and I teamed up for a couple of books.

Q:  How’d that happen?

A:  We’d crossed paths a few times with different projects, and he knew I’d done several collaborations before, so he approached me and we started talking. In my books with Jim and Eric, and Colin, too, at that point, we’d always used the format of a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. Each of us took one of those two characters and essentially wrote our half of the book that way. But when I told Larry that, he was like, “Oh, that’s cool, but I don’t want to do it that way.”

Q:  What did he want?

A:  A straightforward first person procedural called The Last Collar.

Q:  Did it work?

A:  I was afraid it might not. With two writers penning the same character in the first person, my concern was that our different styles would bleed through and the protagonist would seem schizophrenic.

Q:  But he didn’t?

A:  No. Mocha’s voice was all his own. Some from me, some from Larry, and some from the mixing of the two. I think it worked out that way because we both heavily and mercilessly edited the book, regardless of who wrote any particular segment. There are large place of the book now where I couldn’t tell you if I wrote it or just edited.

Q:  You did the same for the other book with him?

A:  No, for Fallen City, we went with a third person, ensemble cast. There was no other way to tell the story the way it needed to be told.

Q:  Lawrence Kelter is from New York.

A:  He is.

Q:  So he’s got to be some kind of a hockey fan.

A:  You’d think so. I can’t remember if I asked him. Hopefully he’s not a Devil’s fan. [puts pitchfork fingers on top of head and wags tongue] Blah! Devils! Blah!

Q:  Wait. That’s Seinfeld.

A:  I think so. Larry would know. I think he’s a big Seinfeld guy.

Q:  What about Bonnie Paulson? She into hockey?

A:   She’s more into outdoor stuff, I’d guess. Hunting, fishing, camping. [points at a player on the ice] That guy camps, too. Right in the crease.

Q:  The…uh?

A:  The blue paint near the net. Get your mind out of the gutter.

Q:  Well, I read The Trade Off, your book with Bonnie. There’s some gutter scenes in that one.

A:  Give me a break. It’s set against human sex trafficking. There’s going to be a little bit of sex references in it.

Q:  I’m talking about a two-chapter sex scene.

A:  Exaggerate much? The sex scene isn’t two full chapters. It starts near the end of one chapter and finishes at the beginning of the next.

Q:  Well, it’s pretty graphic all the same.

A:  What’re you, the FCC? Besides, it wasn’t just sex for the sake of sex. It was important for both characters.

Q:  If you say so.

A:  I do. [smiles evilly] You want something to really freak out about? [thumbs toward self] I wrote the female character in that one, and Bonnie wrote the male.

Q:  That seems…different.

A:  I like trying different things. Maybe it sounds pretentious, but that’s how you grow your art. Writing from a female perspective in the first person is one way. The format of A Grifter’s Song is another. Trying new things is how we challenge ourselves.

Q:  Why isn’t Bonnie on the roster for A Grifter’s Song?

A:  The Trade Off was her one foray into crime fiction. She writes westerns, romance, and post-apocalyptic stuff. You should check it out.

Q:  What’s on the –  [buzzer sounds] Wait, what was that?

A:  Intermission.

Q:  So it’s half-time?

A:  Don’t make me punch you. [stands]

Q:  Where are you going?

A:  Bathroom, beer, and bopping around to say hey to other hockey friends here at the game. You wanna come along?

Q:  No, I think I’ve got enough. Just one last thing – what’s next for you?

A:  Books, books, books. A couple more installments of River City and my Kopriva series. Another season of A Grifter’s Song. A couple of projects that are still top secret that I’m contributing to. And then a few things outside the genre.

Q:  Like?

A:  A fantasy novel, for one. And a mainstream, sorta literary, musical novel.

Q:  That sounds interesting. Tell me about –

A:  I gotta go, man.

Q:  Just a few more questions.

A:  No, I gotta go, as in numero uno?

Q:  Oh, okay. Thanks for the interview, Frank

A:  Catch you further on up the road. [Exits. Rapidly]

A Grifter's Song #2