Sunday 28 September 2014


If you are of a certain age, you might well remember the head-to-head comedy conversations between Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith or the two Ronnies. They’d talk earnestly about something, dive off in tangents, bewilder each other and provide the watcher with a huge amount of entertainment in the process.

There’s something about the central characters in The Burglar Diaries (Bez and Ollie) that reminded me of those comedy encounters. Maybe it’s the quality of the writing and the brilliance of the humour that I felt they had in common.

Bez and Ollie are a team. We get to follow them through a series of crimes that are never short of interesting events in themselves. It’s a collection of musings and action that come together as a well-knitted collection of short stories yet also have something of the driving narrative of a novel. There a thoughts on the criminal code, the planning of a burglary, fencing stolen goods, holding down relationships when you’re a crook, famous rip-offs, popular culture and shades of philosophy.

This was a genuine laugh-out-loud book for me and those laughs were spread all the way through the work. 

There’s great observational and situational humour here and I’d urge you to try it for yourself.

Smashing stuff. 

Thursday 25 September 2014


In The Blue Sweetheart, Clayton, an ex-boxer with the scars to prove it, is hiding out in a bar run by the only man in Ceylon who can keep him safe. If Clayton can follow Kroner’s instructions and trust their friendship, all could turn out very well indeed.
A visit from Alma changes everything. She’s Clayton’s ex and is offering to buy an enormous sapphire on behalf of her boyfriend and the man who owns the local mines, Rudy Hagen. Old wounds are opened and Clayton just can’t resist picking at these old sores. He leaves his safe haven to look for revenge of some kind.
This read is short, hot and sweaty. The femme fatale is unpredictable and manipulative as she should be. There’s lots of action and the setting is exotic. It’s a light read and has many likeable facets. Some of the prose is wonderfully hard-boiled. To my mind the plot’s a little thin and overblown and it feels like the author's going through the motions; if it were a novel I think I’d have lost patience. That said, it’s certainly worth checking out if you’re looking for something to fill a gap and don't fancy anything too heavy.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

First things first.

I’m posting this a few days before the book’s release because if you like the sound of it you’ll still be able to pick up a cheap copy. It’ll be 85p or $1.32 (including tax) if you pick one up before Thursday when Undercover will be released to the world.

Mr Brennan was kind enough to send me a copy when he saw that I’d pre-ordered. Thanks, sir.

“There’s no ‘I’ in team. There’s an ‘M’ and an ‘E’ though. In fact, it’s an anagram of ‘ta me’ as in who you should pass it to if you want to win.” Rory Cullen, CULLEN: The Autobiography

Undercover opens with an uncomfortable scene in a hostage situation. Cormac Kelly is in the unenviable position of being an undercover police officer who has infiltrated the gang who have kidnapped a father and his teenage son. It stretches Kelly’s humanity to watch the treatment of the victims at the hands of the bunch of thugs he has to work for and it’s clearly not going to end well for someone. It might be easier for him to cope if the young boy who has been taken could just accept the situation, but his reactions are spirited and strong and happen to put him in a more precarious position than he needs to be.

The mother (Lydia Gallagher) of the kidnapped pair is a feisty lady who doesn’t find it easy to keep her mouth shut when faced with connections of the men responsible. She also happens to be the agent of Rory Cullen, the new signing of Manchester City Football Club. Cullen’s a course, vain man who happens to be a great striker. He’s on tour trying to sell his autobiography. With his Northern Irish nationality it’s easy for the press to make comparisons between Cullen and George Best. Cullen doesn’t make too many of those comparisons himself – he basically feels he’s better than Best (if grammar will allow that to be).

When Cormac Kelly can take no more of the hostage situation, he takes radical steps. This leads him to be on the hit-list of the mob and also as a target for the police, who believe he has gone rogue.

What follows is a thrilling ride through the streets of Belfast and London. It’s fast paced and exciting and the twists and turns of the plot are cleverly handled by the author. One can never be quite sure where Kelly is going next and the way the cleverness and experience of the man contrast with his reckless nature constantly add drama to the story. If that weren’t enough, a mercenary security expert, bent coppers and remnants of the IRA really ratchet up the tension.

Not only is this a tense read, it also has some of Brennan’s trademarks in there to ensure that it is not simply any old police thriller. This is layered with humour, dark as well as witty, and there’s a great quality to the observation of people and place throughout.

Each chapter opens with a wonderful quote from the Cullen autobiography. These snippets are so well-written that if the autobiography were ever to be published, I’d be the first in the queue to get mine.

This one’s a fabulous read and is a very worthy addition to the already bejewelled Blasted Heath list. Super stuff.   

Sunday 21 September 2014


"The two things I inherited from my old man when he died were in an old shoe box under the bed; his Marine Corps ring and his nickel plated .45."

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em is a collection that spans lots of the wonderful aspects of American life that I love to read about in crime fiction. There are drive-ins and casinos, hitch-hikers and hotels, prison cells and cops, Vietnam hangovers and drug-dealers, hold-ups and bleeders. There’s also a good variety of voice, style and length which means you never quite know where you’re going to end up next.

What I think Chris Leek is extremely good at is nailing a character in a very short space of time and, where it’s appropriate, making you care. Many of these pieces are superbly rounded and leave a powerful emotional reaction. Some of the endings are incredibly satisfying and left me having to pause to draw breath and allow my reaction to take shape.

He also has a real turn of phrase, using few words to tell you all you need to know:

"He was a man who liked to work with his hands. They had worked on me from time-to-time. On my mother too."

And Mr Leek’s take on revenge can also be very sweet indeed.

Among my favourites here are Jacks, Queen’s and Evens; He Ain’t Heavy; My Father’s House; and Always On The Ride. They all had a solid impact and left a big exit wound.

I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through this collection and think you will too. It’s always good, often great and there are flashes of real brilliance. I’ll be looking for more. 

Saturday 20 September 2014

One Man's Opinion: STIFFED by ROB KITCHIN

You know where you are right from the beginning of Stiffed. You’re in Tadhg Maguire’s tense, edgy and funny nightmare. What you don’t know is exactly how badly things will become.
Tadhg (be careful how you say that, now) returns home from a bout of heavy drinking and wakes up in his bed with his arm round the corpse of a gangster’s heavy instead of his crazy girlfriend. As we’re soon to find out, the crazy girlfriend happens to have stolen a million bucks from the mob, which at least goes some way to explain the switch between the sheets.
Clearly Tadhg faces a dilemma. He can call the murder in, do a runner or dispose of the body. He chooses the latter and enlists the help of some good friends to make sure he gets the job done.
In retrospect, a runner might well have been the best option.
His good friends don’t know what they’ve let themselves in for.
It’s not long before there’s another body on the scene and the police come round to find out what exactly is going on.
This may have been a bad start to Tadhg’s day. As he looks back on events, finding a body in his bed is going to seem like a bright spot. Things spiral out of control and fall to pieces.
To my mind, the piece feels very visual and has the energy of a slick action film. Overlaying the chaos and pace are the thoughts of a very confused Tadhg. This blend works really well.
The sense of America as a melting pot for the diverse certainly comes across and the list of supporting characters are really well drawn.
Essentially I thought the read was a lot of fun. The crime and action angles work well, in the main as platform that allows Kitchen’s comedy to play out. The humour comes in many forms – in dialogue, situation, action and slapstick – which means it’s an entertaining read and an ideal beach companion (even if that beach is a cold, rocky expanse on the East Coast of Scotland).

Thursday 18 September 2014


 Factory Town by Jon Bassoff

‘This here is a town of sin, a town of sadness, a town of hatred. Every dam person is guilty of something.’

I’m sure we all think about what the moment before death will be like from time-to-time. I’m hoping that when it’s my turn, my body will be pumped full of natural hormones and chemicals designed to take as much fear, pain and anxiety from the process as possible.

For the man who walks into a stranger’s house at the beginning of Factory Town, his journey into oblivion most certainly isn’t a pleasant experience. At three minutes to twelve, he puts a bullet in to his brain. The time is important as it is the device Bassoff uses to help us settle in to what is about to happen and the book takes a huge leap into a new space.

We meet Russell Carver. Essentially he’s in a living hell. He’s landed in Factory Town charged with the duty of finding a girl whom he believes is in imminent danger. All he has to go on to help find her is a small picture printed from the computer.

As he goes about his search, he walks down one dead end after another.

Wherever he turns, he arrives in a place populated by the grotesque. The town is described vividly, as are the characters, and the sense of darkness and depravity is really powerfully created. It's a bit like the Old Testament, only without God.

The dream-like quality to the piece is superbly crafted. It allows for unusual events to take place and for sudden shifts in time and place. The people populating Factory Town are often those who are familiar to Carver from his life. His school friend, Charlie, pops up to give him a helping hand of sorts. With friends like Charlie, Carver certainly doesn’t need any enemies, but unfortunately that’s something he’s not in control of.

Like any dream, however, it always feels real and entirely plausible when you’re in it, which only adds to the nightmare.

Carver limps from one unpleasant experience to another. He finds that there are no children in Factory Town. He comes to understand that The Cowboy is a sinister figure who controls the area. He witnesses the slow corrosion of the population and infrastructure caused by the factory that is the centre of it all:

‘Strange things are happening, he said. It’s all because of the factory. All the chemicals leaking into the town’s hippocampus.’

According to the townsfolk, there are no children in the town. No children shall be born there by decree. Carver is confused by this when he meets the torchbearer of hope in the town. He’s a young boy who dresses as a super-hero called The Annihilator. With his plastic swords he’s out to sort the world out, no matter how powerful the forces of evil are.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that recurring themes are pulling Carver in one direction, which leads him to the truths of his own life. By the end of the read, we can understand a little about that life and about the pain and sorrow that abusive relationships can cause and how such abuse can be passed on from one generation to the next like a family heirloom.
'You need to let go of my wrist. You don't want to end up like your father, do you?'

There’s so much to like about this book. It’s relentless in its portrayal of the broken. It has a real raw power in the structure of sentences and worlds. There’s a gripping need to follow this man on his journey and as his quest unfolds and the need to understand becomes ever more pressing.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Bassoff’s trademark style of ignoring speech marks as punctuation; this allows a flow and power to conversation that is hard to find.

Factory Town is a work of real weight. It has the impact and a hold that comes with all great books. It’s also sticking around in my head weeks after reading, which says a lot. It says more that those recollections still make me shudder.


Wednesday 17 September 2014


Given the weight of what is going to happen tomorrow here in Scotland, it seems to me to be a good time to offer my dystopian short Sleeps With The Fishes for free today.

It also seems like an apt time to celebrate a smart piece of Scottish writing, so here goes.

In Devil In The Detail, Scott Cullen returns to work after the traumas of the Schoolbook case and is quickly back in the middle of the action when the body of a young girl with Additional Support Needs is discovered by a dog walker in the middle of East Lothian.

It’s not long before Cullen realises he’s in some kind of police hell.

Bain is leading the investigation and goes about it with a familiar recklessness and a determination to fit reality into his model of the crime at any costs. Bain’s attitude rubs up the local police in the wrong way and the atmosphere becomes charged.

As if this weren’t enough, Cullen is dealing with the starchy attitudes of the county’s upper-middle classes. He also finds himself involved with a small-but-expanding religious sect which has a leader who practically defines sinister. It also turns out that his leading suspect for the murder can’t be found, not matter how much effort the police make.

The majority of the story focuses upon developments in the case and Cullen’s drive to solve what is soon to become a double murder. As it unfolds, the dark and sordid elements of the case are brought sharply into focus. Underneath all of this is a whodunit that is very well put together. There’s plenty of theorising to be done and the outcome is likely to remain tantalisingly out of reach until the final pages no matter how familiar you are with the genre.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

One Man's Opinion: DARE ME by MEGAN ABBOTT

What a brilliant book Dare Me is.

It tells the story of a cheerleading team that are taken over by a new coach who wants to do things a little differently to her predecessor. Among the first things Coach French does is to remove the role of captain from the all-powerful Beth. In doing so, she sets in motion a complex chain of events that will see the cheerleaders’ pyramid tumble like a house of cards in the wind.

Beth’s a dangerous young lady. She has the ability to find out anything she wants about anyone in her town and has the malice to use the information she’s gathered for her own ends. (“Beth with her clenched jaw, about to unsnap. It reminds me of something I learned once in biology: a crocodile’s teeth are constantly replaced. Their whole life, they never stop growing new teeth”).

It doesn’t take long for Beth to uncover something on Coach, her latest enemy. Coach is having an affair with a young recruiting soldier. Beth sets out to use her knowledge of the affair in a way that generals ply their cunning and tactical awareness on the battlefield.

Caught in between the sparring of Beth and Coach is the narrator, Addy. Addy hears things from both sides and it really messes with her head. This confusion is amplified hugely when Addy becomes trapped in the middle of a murder investigation where the two queens on the block play her like a pawn in a game of chess.

Addy’s a brilliant narrator. She articulates the deepest of her feelings with wonderful frankness. Her voice is almost poetic, being full of rhythms that serve to perfectly create and then echo the mood of a moment. The sentences have a wonderful quality to them. They seem fragile and delicate and reflect something of the way in which Addy perceives herself. It’s a wonder that from these building blocks, Megan Abbott has created a work that is full to the brim with menace and that such sentences have been placed together in such a way that the story is always riveting.

This novel works on so many levels. It delves into the lives of a cheerleading team and explores some of the dynamics, drive and relationships within the group in a fascinating way. If offers a window into a world of texting and social networking that plays on some of the worst fears I hold for my children. It peels off layers of teenage life to expose the translucent hopes and anxieties of the young. It’s a brilliant example of successful plotting and narration.

My only query about anything in the book, and it’s a tiny thing, is the use of a prologue. It’s a scene taken from the middle of the book and it does firmly establish the story’s compass as pointing towards the dark and sinister. To my mind, this wasn’t necessary as the power of the actual opening would have done the job perfectly for me.

Dare Me is written with such a strong narration, the present tense of which adds to the sense of rawness and sense of being exposed, that I fear the author must have needed a spell of therapy afterwards to recover from the trauma of the experience.

I’ll loop back to the beginning. Dare Me is a brilliant book that I believe with enrich any reader’s collection. Not to be missed.

Friday 5 September 2014


You do know that you can pre-order a copy of Gerard Brennan’s new novel, Undercover: A Cormac Kelly Thriller don’t you? That it’s published by Blasted Heath and that it’s cheaper now at 89p / $1.41 than when it’s released at the end of this month?

Good. That’s OK then.

Of course, if you didn’t, you might want to know about some of his other books. Here’s one I really loved over the summer.

Welcome to the Octagon (Fight Card MMA) is a neat little addition to the Fight Card series. It opens with a fight between the narrator, Mickey, and Psycho Sid. It’s a brutal affair from the depths of the unlicensed and anything goes MMA.

Winning the fight should bring pleasure to Mickey, but instead it only brings him grief. He’s kicked out of his gym by Eddie Smith who has high hopes for his star fighter Barry ‘Boom Boom’ Boyd.

Mickey turns to a new manager who promises he can get him onto the BJJ wrestling cards. The thing about the new manager is that he’s as likely to pull a fast one as certainly as his name (Swifty) suggests.

He intends to lead Mickey up the garden path and takes the reader along for a real treat in the process.

Mickey’s a great character. He’s a down-to-earth hard man and a single parent. This latter state of affairs means that he’s obliged to keep his anger in check. Not easily done. He’s certainly a guy to root for in spite of his imperfections.

The fight scenes in the book are really well written and are gripping in more ways than one. The sequence of events feels wonderfully real and the outcome is perfectly played out.

It’s very entertaining and has a truly refreshing style. Now go get.  Both of them!

Wednesday 3 September 2014

One Man's Opinion: A WIND OF KNIVES by ED KURTZ

There’s a dark feel to this A Wind Of Knives right from the off. The opening offers a strong sense of the world being a tiny pinprick within huge universe, a pinprick where all human activity takes place.

Daniel’s been running a farm in Texas, with only the one ranch hand left as the remainder have either joined up to fight in the civil war or run away to avoid joining up. This hand is Steven Houpe and when we get to meet him, he’s hanging from a Juniper tree as a mutilated corpse. His crime? Sodomy. He’s a strange fruit, to be sure.

The book takes Daniel on his journey to find revenge. On the way he comes across outlaws and rangers, card games and killings, all of which give the story a strong sense of the spirit of the age.

The question as to why Daniel’s need to find revenge is so deep rooted was my main drive to turn the pages. There are also questions relating the involvement of the James brothers and why they have such strong reactions to Houpe’s death. All of these characters have very strong motives  and are prepared to go an awfully long way to find satisfaction.

I really enjoyed this novella. The description is vivid, the sense of detail strong and it has many of the accoutrements that one might expect to find in a Western. The characters have real depth and their potential actions know no boundaries. Best of all for me is 
Daniel’s view of the world, from an internal and external point of view.

When Ed Kurtz deals the cards, he certainly hands out a couple of aces.