Saturday 29 April 2023


It's been a while since I've read anything by Lawrence Block. Long enough to forget just how brilliant he is as a writer. 

The Girl With The Long Green Heart (US) is a grifter novel that is perfectly pitched. One of those reads when you carry a terrible feeling that everything is going to go wrong. You worry that you might be right about that and then you worry that you might be wrong. No matter which way you see it playing out, it doesn't seem like anyone's going to come out of it undamaged and, because you're rooting for the protagonist, a lot of nervous energy is generated. 

Johnny is that protagonist. He's pulled jobs alone and in teams and has served hard time as a consequence. He's decided to go straight, managing a bowling alley while he saves his pennies to buy a nearby hotel and takes classes to ensure that when he does buy it he knows how to make it work. 

Doug Rance has created the perfect scam. It will give him a wedge to return to the tables at Vegas. If he can persuade Johnny to get on board, then Johnny can own that hotel without all the years of squirreling away nickels and dimes. 

Doug plays Johnny. Johnny feels the strings being pulled, but he's all too happy to be drawn in. The pair then carry on with the con, each holding back from the other while setting up the deal. 

Their target is Wallace Gunderman. He's a rich landowner who has been stung before. That sting still hurts and it makes him the perfect mark- not only does he want to make money, he's also doing it for pride. 

His secretary is key to the deal. Evvie's the one who gave Rance the idea in the first place. As well as being central to the trickery, she's also got it all. She also just happens to be the girl with the long green heart. She's beautiful, clever and a natural when it comes to acting out her role, and she smoulders like any of the best on-screen femme-fatales. It's not long before you start wondering if she's not too good to be true. Perhaps she is, perhaps she isn't. And maybe she's somewhere in between. She's the reason for the queasy feeling and for any scorch marks you might find in your copy. 

It's a great story because in so many ways the reader is the mark. Block is twisting our minds all the time. He's manipulating our emotions and our logic and it's such a page turner that we don't have the time to sit back and try to make sense of it. 

Having ramped things up from the start, the novel does take a breather just before the denouement. It's a time to pause for breath and to revisit the theories that have been hatching all over the place. There is important information here, but if I have a slight criticism of the book this would be it. When I'm hurtling towards and ending, I really don't want the brakes to go on, I want to fly through that windshield with my eyes open. 

The ending itself was as unexpected as it was expected. Enough pieces have been collected along the way to get it half right. The rest of them come flying at you all at once and it's Johnny who takes over to lay them into position with fantastic skill and ease.

This one has a real hard-boiled flavour. The voice is perfect. The descriptions are minimal but nailed. The quips are sharp and the similes original and full of an acerbic humour that I really enjoyed. 

I may have felt like a mark from the off, but I certainly didn't feel short changed. Just the opposite. Another Hard Case Crime cracker to add to my list and my thirst for Lawrence Block is back.    

Very good indeed.        

Sunday 16 April 2023


A hurricane hits Florida. While there's tragedy everywhere, there are pockets of unusual thinking and strange behaviour. A one-eyed man of the wild is hoping the storm will be the biggest on record. A man on honeymoon would rather take film of the victims than spend time with his new wife. A skull-juggler feels the need to search for the exotic animals he's recently inherited. Another couple come together to exploit the devastation for financial gain. 

It does feel a bit like Hiaasen has created these sets of characters, thrown them into a blended and poured out the resulting cocktail onto the page, yet the various plots converge in a way that suggests there's been a lot more planning than that. 

Essentially this is bonkers. Crazy things happen everywhere. There's kidnapping, fraud, crucifixion, death by lion, swamp sex, an electric collar, a dart gun and a deranged monkey camera thief to name a but a few.  

There are lots of quotes on the sleeve about how hilarious the end result is. 'Howlingly funny', for example. 'Violently pleasurable'. 'Perhaps the funniest important writer in America'. For me, not really big on satire, it was none of the above though I smiled quite a bit and enjoyed quite a number of the situations and lines. No out loud laughs, just the odd warm moment. 

Among my favourite moments, the mention in the plot of Paradise Palms. This happens to be a most excellent place to visit for anyone travelling to Edinburgh (food, music, vibe et al). It has a record label and shop, so you can find some cool tunes while you eat, drink and be merry. 

Stormy Weather? Fair company for a journey, entertaining if you can find the right head space and a surprisingly pacey read for a big book.  

Thursday 13 April 2023

One Man's Opinion: FOR KICKS by DICK FRANCIS

It's my own fault, really. A week in France and I had my Ed McBain for the flight over, followed by a substantial looking Michael Chabon (Telegraph Avenue) for which I had high hopes (The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay being a big favourite of mine). 

It turned out that I developed an aversion for the Chabon very quickly. I'm not sure what it was, but I was disorientated early on and couldn't recover. My younger self would have ploughed on regardless, but my old mind wouldn't let me (not enough years left and too many books). 

When it came to finding an alternative, the amount of reading material in English that I could lay my hands on was extremely limited. The only book that caught my eye was For Kicks by Dick Francis. 

An alternative was to give Hemingway's Le Vieil Homme Et La Mer a go. The problem with that is my lack of proficiency in French (something of an understatement). Though Hemingway's use of language is so clean and lean that I can gain the gist of what's going on much of the time, to do it properly would take far too much use of a dictionary or Google Translate to make it satisfying.    

For Kicks won out on account of the simplicity of the process of reading and it gave me plenty to think about. 

It's an older novel. Published in January 1965 just after I was born, like me it's pretty dated stuff. Not that it's without charm. 

The Earl of October drives into the life of Australian Daniel Roke with a slightly implausible offer. October is seeking out someone who understands horses to investigate curious goings on in the English National Hunt scene. Eleven horses with little hope have finished first and none have shown any signs of being doped. It's a scandal that could ruin the sport and October is too big a fan to let that happen. He's tried before, hiring a journalist who died in a car accident at the point where he may have been gaining headway with his investigation. Now he's desperate enough to pay Roke a huge sum of money on account of a chance conversation in a nearby town. It's all rather quaint and comforting. 

Roke, bored by a life where he is responsible for the upbringing of his younger siblings, jumps at the chance. So what if he'll have to slum it with some rough types around the training yards of the UK? He can fit in by growing an pair of sideburns, donning a leather jacket and twisting his Aussie twang into a cockney patter. 

There's lots of over explanation and the characters are like a bunch of hammy actors trying to make their way in am-dram. Occasionally there are hints of sex and glimpses of naked women or their undergarments that seem to be aimed at appealing to the 1960s male and helping to shift a few extra copies. The observations of class structure are stereotyped, the action is slow and the dialogue overlong. There are twists and turns along the way and as the story comes to a close the danger hinted at in the opening chapter is finally realised. 

Which doesn't sound like a great set of ingredients and makes me wonder why I was willing to carry on with this when Telegraph Avenue was added so quickly to the DNF pile. 

I think that has to be because of the plot. Underneath all the faults, the intrigue is sown early on. The world of horse racing and gambling is perfect for a crooked tale. And Roke himself, though he may go on a bit, carries himself with dignity and charm throughout.

If it were a horse, For Kicks would be a bit of a plodder. It might win a couple of long races on soft ground when stamina was of a premium, especially if the handicapper shaved off ten thousand words or thereabouts. Even so, it was fun to read on account of its subject matter and the underlying concept of the mystery. 

Worth the effort and passed the time.    

Monday 10 April 2023

One Man's Opinion: FUZZ by ED McBAIN

Following a series is an interesting thing. I think you build a sense of loyalty to an author and a set of characters that softens the critical eye. That's particularly the case when a series has a lot of entries. The 87th Precinct books were published between 1956 and 2005 and there aren't many that can claim such a span of time. The run is almost as long as that of Coronation Street and they're able to change writing teams when necessary. 

Fuzz was published in 1968 and at only 12 years into the process, it could be seen as a fairly early addition. 

This one interested me as it answered a question that raised itself after reading Doll. Doll is definitely one of my favourites and I wondered if that was because the quality of the writing and storytelling was simply getting better as McBain polished his craft and further understood those occupying his creations. Having read Fuzz, I think the answer has to be no. 

Here we have the return of the Deaf Man. Having read several of the Deaf Man books (because of my early random approach to the series) I was delighted to see him back on the scene. No doubt deep deeds, merriment and drama were to follow. Sadly, and perhaps because of the anticipation his presence spawned, I was slightly disappointed by this one. 

Things start strongly. The Deaf Man promises to kill a member of the city council if $5000 isn't left in a lunch pail on a park bench in a freezing cold Isola. The money is left and, true to his word, the assassination is carried out. 

A second request is made. This time, the council official is higher in the food chain and the demand is now ten times bigger than the first time round. 

 As things play out, a couple of decorators are painting the whole of the department a shade of apple green. As well as the walls, they're spraying phones, files and suits as they work and this is adding to the tension at the station. To make things worse, Byrnes is getting it in the neck and he's giving it back to anyone who fails in any aspect of the case they're following. 

Steve Carella isn't working the extortion case. He's dressed as a homeless man and is hoping to catch the perpetrators of burnings of homeless fold in the district. Things don't go well. 

While Carella sleeps in frozen doorways, the rest of the squad are following their only lead to the assassinations. They focus a lot on this and it's entertaining enough. The issue for me is that this line of investigation is clearly so removed from the Deaf Man that its momentum soon begins to fizzle. It's also a line that is crucial to the denouement of the story and becomes tangled up with the ending in such a way as to make it unsatisfactory. It's all too complicated and indirect. 

Not that Fuzz fails to entertain. There are plenty of excellent set-pieces, Meyer's visit to a sleazy pool hall for one. Some fun then, but for me it dragged its feet (the Miranda references tiring, aspects of the investigation heavy, a need to suspend some belief and perhaps too many of the squad being involved at once). Distinctly below par, a fractured plot, necessary reading for maintaining the streak and still worth checking out.  

Hear more from Hark  episode 22, Chewing A Donkey, where they're a lot more positive than me. 

Wednesday 5 April 2023


It was so good to be back with the 87th that after reading Doll, I couldn't resist Eighty Million Eyes. Now I'm done with Eighty Million Eyes, I couldn't resist and so I'm reading Fuzz. After that, I'll need a break- I don't want to get through all the books any time soon, so I'll be changing direction for a while. 

The Eighty Million Eyes of the story are those watching TV comic Stan Gifford as he takes to the screen for another of his weekly shows. Two of those belong to a big fan of his, Steve Carella. It's because he's tuned in that Carella gets to see his favourite comedian collapse and die as it happens. 

In the madness that follows, Gifford's doctor anounces that his patient had a strong heart and that a heart attack should be ruled out. He also suggests that poison may have been involved. The autopsy confirms this, but doesn't rule out suicide as a possible cause of death. 

That's our main plot and, just for good measure, there are some throwaway jokes to maintain the comedy spirit. 

Our sideline here, and my prefered strand, is delivered as the opening in the form of six pages of perfection. A hard man is waiting in an office for a woman named Cindy. The boss wants him to leave, but he's not budging. A cop is called. He's a rookie who things he can handle the situation. He can't. Hard man demands Cindy is called. When she finally arrives, it turns out she has no idea who it is that wants to see her so badly. The heat is turned up, the cop intervenes, the cop takes a battering, the hard man exits. It's a brilliant set up and the plotline is hugely satisfying, not least because it confirms the sense from Doll that the real Kling is back with us. 

I took this with me on the train down to Newcastle to see the Magpies thrash Man Utd 2-0. What with the result, the read and the grin on my son's face, it was just about the perfect day.

Not quite the tension and excitement of Doll, but well worth a visit. 

There's more on this one over at Hark if you fancy the podcast. You might also enjoy Criminolly over at Youtube, who has a piece where he holds up every book of the series that he can with a few treats besidse. His recommendations on 'Pulp, Crime, Horror, That Kind Of Thing' are well worth checking out.