It’s a rainy night in the mill town of Scunthorpe when a London fixer named Jack Carter steps off a northbound train. He’s left the neon lights and mod lifestyle of Soho behind to come north to his hometown for a funeral—his brother Frank’s. Frank was very drunk when he drove his car off a cliff and that doesn’t sit well with Jack. Mild-mannered Frank never touched the stuff.
In 1971 the film Get Carter starring Michael Caine was released and it has since become arguably one of the greatest gangster films of all time. The film was so successful after it's release that the book upon which it was based, Jack's Return Home, was renamed after the film. For this review I'm using the original title.
"The rain rained. It hadn't stopped since Euston. Inside the train it was close, the kind of closeness that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you're doing is sitting there looking out of the blurring windows. Watching the dirty backs of houses scudding along under the half-light clouds. Just sitting and looking and not even fidgeting."
With those opening words to Jack's Return Home Ted Lewis changed British crime writing forever and the modern British crime novel was born. Reading it almost 50 years after it was published is an equally fascinating and disturbing experience. Fans of the film, of which I'm one, will recognise much of the dialogue because large parts of it were used in the film. Much of the narrative also doesn't change until the last third of the book with notable exception being the book's location of Scunthorpe as opposed to Newcastle Upon Tyne for the film. The violence is also there but more sharply focused because the humour, dark and bleak as it was, is missing.
As I mentioned before Jack's Return Home is also a disturbing read, I say this because the violence towards women, verbal, physical and thought, is unrelenting throughout the novel. In many respects reading the book is harsher because of the first person narration adding another layer of male violence towards women. It has also made me rethink my views towards the film and although I still intend to watch it again I expect it be a deeply uncomfortable viewing.
In conclusion, for anyone who's either a fan of Get Carter or wants to read the book because of its historical importance to crime fiction I recommend reading it, just don't expect Jack's Return Home to be an enjoyable experience.
Whiskey From Small Glasses, Denzil Meyrick
DI Jim Daley is sent from the city to investigate a murder after the body of a woman is washed up on an idyllic beach on the West Coast of Scotland.
Far away from urban resources, he finds himself a stranger in a close knit community.
The investigation becomes more deadly as two more bodies are found.
Love, betrayal, fear and death stalk the small community, as Daley investigates a case that becomes more deadly than he could possibly imagine; in this compelling, beautifully written novel - infused with intrigue and dark humour.
WHISKEY FROM SMALL GLASSES is the first in the DI Jim Daley (yes he does go to the gym daily) and DS Brian Scott series, which I've started listening to, as opposed to reading, and very fine listening it is. Narrated by David Monteath, the series is now up to book 6.
Starting out with a good balance between introduction and set up of new characters, and an interesting investigation to be getting on with, WHISKEY FROM SMALL GLASSES comes with a unique setting and some dark humour into the bargain. There's also more than enough intrigue, marital issues, and police politics to keep a reader amused.
Set in a seemingly fictional version of Kinloch, one hundred and fifty "long way round" miles from Glasgow, the area has recently come under the overall control of the Strathclyde Police. Superintendent John Donald, once footsore copper and compatriot of Daley's, now his boss, is determined to get these remote outposts to step into line, so a murder case seems like the perfect opportunity to send Daley and Scott off to the countryside, get a quick turnaround on the case, and show these yokels a thing or two about effective policing. Not exactly the best timing for Daley's personal life as his marriage to the serially unfaithful Liz is tanking rapidly, his waistline is expanding and his reserves of patience sorely tried. When Liz lobs into Kinloch with her suspect brother-in-law in tow, it's the last thing Daley wants or needs, although the arrival of his investigating buddy, friend and sounding board Brian Scott, him of the highly colourful turn of phrase, and pointed turn of snark, has given Daley the friend and support he needs.
Listening to this novel washing past was a very enjoyable experience. There is a hefty concentration on Daley's problems with his marriage, enough that I'd have normally expected to be rapidly over it, but it does kind of work here. The concentration on the case, the friendship between Daley and Scott, the idiotic behaviour of the local police chief, all sort of slot together, making everyone feel real, and conflicted, and trying hard. With the Daley's being away from home, in a place where they are unknown there is always the hope that they might eventually decide whether it's a yes or no on the marriage. With Daley and Scott being in town, even though the body count does grow, there's always a feeling that there might not be Donald's longed for quick turnaround, but a resolution to the murders will be found. All the while there is the real feeling that Kinloch and it's people are working their way into Daley's admiration and life.
There is much more to these murders than originally thought, and things quickly go from a murder investigation to sorting out an international drug-trafficking ring, and at that point the investigative side of the novel does get a bit ropey, although where it's heading becomes obvious at the end. Write this one off to a major amount of set up for the rest of the series and you should be able to forgive things getting a bit messy, to say nothing of some very heavy darning to pull some threads into place.
Having now listened to the first couple of books in the series, I think I'll stick with them in audio format as the dialogue, the place names, even the thought patterns of the characters are quintessentially Scottish and part of the enjoyment was hearing it in just the right accent.
The Only Secret Left to Keep, Katherine Hayton
Detective Ngaire Blakes is back on the case when a skeletonized murder victim is discovered - a crime that took place during the Springbok Tours of 1981. A period that pitted father against son, town against city, and police against protestors.
The third book in the Ngaire Blakes series, THE ONLY SECRET LEFT TO KEEP finds Blakes back in the police force (see my review of the second book: THE SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF for more), confronted by a very unusual case. The skeleton of a murder victim, found on a fireground, is eventually identified as a young African American, Sam Andie, who went missing around the time of the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand.
In the first two novels in this series a fair amount of time has gone into setting up the character of Ngaire Blakes. A cop who suffers from PTSD she's been assaulted, left the force, solved a case that she was being framed in, and is now back on the force, with a baffling historical crime to solve. In this outing the concentration has moved away from the character back story and more towards the investigation - a promising sign that this series is going to continue to evolve and improve from the potential heralded in the first two novels.
The plot here is nicely complicated by a series of factors - the Springbok Tours in New Zealand (and Australia) were fraught times, accompanied by many protests, strong opinions for and against, and the potential for a protest to have been a catalyst for murder is highly feasible. As is the possibility that a young African American man, transplated from the States to New Zealand by his family, could have met with racial prejudice and violence. Further complicated by the double homicide conviction handed down to Sam's girlfriend in the same week that he disappeared.
Because there has been so much concentration of Ngaire Blakes in the earlier books there is always the possibility that this is a series that would work better if you started at the very beginning, although you can step into it at THE ONLY SECRET LEFT TO KEEP, accept that Blakes has some hefty baggage, and enjoy the novel as a police procedural / investigation in its own right. There's plenty to this plot, to Sam Andie himself, and to events around the time that he was murdered to keep a reader involved and occupied. Knowing a lot more about Blakes certainly means that you can see exactly how this series is progressing, and get a feeling for the way it keeps moving forward, adjusting the focus, and heading into very interesting territory indeed.
The Second Stage of Grief, Katherine Hayton
A false accusation. A brutal murder. Can Ngaire find a killer before he finds her?
Ngaire Blakes is trying to put her life back together. The ex-cop resigned from the police after a vicious assault left her battling PTSD. Dragged into a murder investigation, she’s shocked to discover that all the evidence points to her.
This is an embarrassingly overdue mention of the second novel in a series which is going from strength to strength. Apologies to the author, the delay is all my fault.
If you're not aware of the Ngaire Blakes series from New Zealand author Katherine Hayton then this is one that needs to go on the to be read pile. Starting out with THE THREE DEATHS OF MAGDALENE LYNTON, then this novel, THE SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF onto the third, which was longlisted in this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards, THE ONLY SECRET LEFT TO KEEP, this is a police procedural which is improving in leaps and bounds with every outing.
Centred around Ngaire Blakes, a Police Detective who in this novel has resigned from the force after a brutal assault has left her suffering from PTSD, Blake is a terrific character. Flawed and complex without being tediously complicated, Blakes is strong enough to take on the world on her own in THE SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF, after isolating herself from friends and colleagues, and running to her estranged father's remote hometown to hide. Only hiding never works, and somehow Blakes finds herself in the position of having to find a killer before a frame up gets her.
The procedural elements of these books work pretty well, and the plots are nicely twisty and tricky, but at the heart of it all is a great character study. Blakes is one of those characters that you can't help but like, even though you'd probably want to shake sense into her if it was real life. She's troubled, she's flawed, she's suffering and she's extremely real and absolutely believable. Setting or sense of place is slightly less important, and in THE SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF if nothing else, Blakes fleeing to her father's place gives the author an opportunity to give the reader a sense of the remoteness and rural nature of the areas that she's moving through.
There was potential in the first book that's been continued in this second outing. There are obvious hints here that Blakes police career is far from over though, and the third book deservedly won a place on the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards longlist. More on that next up.
Colombiano, Rusty Young
In Colombia you have to pick a side. Or one will be picked for you . . .
All Pedro Gutiérrez cares about is fishing, playing pool and his girlfriend Camila’s promise to sleep with him on his sixteenth birthday. But his life is ripped apart when Guerrilla soldiers callously execute his father in front of him, and he and his mother are banished from their farm.
Swearing vengeance against the five men responsible, Pedro, with his best friend Palillo, joins an illegal Paramilitary group, where he is trained to fight, kill and crush any sign of weakness.
COLOMBIANO is one of those huge (689 pages huge) sweeping saga styled novels that has enough story to fill those pages, although this is raw, gut-wrenching, frequently shocking stuff. Especially if you know there are aspects of somebody's true story built into a fictional telling.
Not for the light-hearted, or weak of arm if you're going to be reading a paperback / hardback copy COLOMBIANO starts out with an author prologue which is well worth reading as it tells the background to the story, then moves into Part One - Little Pedro commencing with the line:
They came on a Wednesday to execute my father.
They did indeed execute Pedro's father, after a few chapters that describe the lead up to the execution, the reasons, and then into the aftermath. Switching rapidly backwards and forwards between events and timelines, Pedro's father's death is sadly just another pointless execution in a long line of guerrilla warfare - rebels versus government / right versus wrong (hard to decide which is which) and violence. Loss, violence, deprivation, cruelty, sadness, inter-generational hatred, revenge, bitterness, dark humour... it's all here in spades.
Whilst the book itself is a thumping big undertaking COLOMBIANO is told in a series of short, sharp chapters, switching the focus and timelines around all the time, keeping the reader from having to concentrate too hard on just the worst aspects, sprinkling in a little bit of coming-of-age story, trying to balance the descent into madness with love as an uplifting counter-point.
Hard going, with an authentic voice that makes it emotionally challenging and confronting, COLOMBIANO is well worth pursuing - even if the size is off-putting. This reads, feels and is telegraphed in the prologue as something this author was passionately driven to produce.
Get Poor Slow, David Free
By forty you're meant to have the face you deserve. I got the face early. It took me a while to earn it. I believe I am finally there.
There were so many reasons I wanted to love GET POOR SLOW. The concept of the most hated book reviewer in Australia being the only suspect in a murder, right down to the belly full of bourbon and the curdled dreams of literary greatness sounds like great fun. And I did so like the opening lines:
I'm starting to doubt this thing will end soon. Last night one of them came up to the house. I was inside, doing what I do these days when it gets dark. No lights on, no book, no TV, no sounds, just a glass in my fist with not much left in it.
There is so much portent in the opening chapters of this novel, it drips with potential, until it doesn't. Which comes surprisingly quickly given the excellent commencement.
The writing is wonderful, it's slightly ironic, tongue in cheek with the story told from Ray's own point of view, almost a riff on the private investigator's of old. Ray's asides are as eloquent and nasty as his reviews, he's sarcastic and unflinching, and yet, not too far in, I was bored witless. Perhaps it's the coyness of the plot, which doesn't really have a lot to be coy about. Perhaps it was the general thinning of the whole reason for the tale - it's hard to spin bittered and twisted done wrong bloke for too long before it all gets a bit ho hum. Perhaps it was the sneaking suspicion that Ray Saint ain't no Rake no matter how hard he tried to be. There just wasn't quite enough bite to the humour, quite enough rakishness overall, certainly never quite the twinkle in the eye that you suspect a Rake like character needs to be forgiven over and over again. Maybe it was because at one point Saint started to feel like his favourite thing was him - it all got very self-indulgent and at that point the thinness of the overall plot really struggled for relevance in the light of the somewhat lukewarm personal character assassination.
Whatever the reasons, about half the way into GET POOR SLOW, I suddenly found myself easily distracted by the dishes, or the dusting, or anything really. Which is never a good sign.
The Unmourned, Meg and Tom Keneally
Not all murder victims are mourned, but the perpetrator must always be punished ...
For Robert Church, superintendent of the Parramatta Female Factory, the most enjoyable part of his job is access to young convict women.Inmate Grace O'Leary has made it her mission to protect the women from his nocturnal visits and when Church is murdered with an awl thrust through his right eye, she becomes the chief suspect.
The second novel in the Monsarrat series, THE UNMOURNED is set in Sydney, based around the Parramatta Female Factory - the epitome of appalling institutions in a line up that you'd think would be hard to lead.
The investigator in this series is ticket-of-leave recipient, gentleman convict, Hugh Monsarrat who has come from Port Macquarie to Parramatta in Sydney with his every-loyal housekeeper Mrs Mulrooney. Having, as yet, not had the pleasure of reading the first book in the series THE SOLDIER'S CURSE or now the third, THE POWER GAME, this is something that I really need to rectify (I realise that's starting to become my never-ending mantra), but this combination of history with a touch of mystery, great characters, good settings, and interesting storylines is worth pursuing.
On the slightly mannered side of historical tellings, this second novel plays very fair with new readers, giving you more than enough background on Monsarrat and Mulrooney to be able to sort out the relationship, and a fair bit of their pasts without having to work too hard, whilst keeping the focus on the current storyline. The Parramatta Female Factory is one of those areas of Australian history that this reader knew a bit about, but obviously nowhere near enough, and the historical details behind the factory, it's purpose, and the way it was used and abused were informative. It's told in great style with verve and a real sense of being able to be part of it - instead of reading a somewhat dull, accurate and passionless historical account.
The murder of the superintendent Robert Church, is intriguing, but in many ways it's the history in this novel that matters a tad more than the mystery. When delivered as well as THE UNMOURNED does it, it's of no matter that the mystery is somewhat easy to resolve pretty early on. There's still plenty of intrigue in the lives of Monsarrat, Mulrooney and everybody associated with the Parramatta Female Factory to keep the interest of readers, to say nothing of how excellent it is to have novels that finally cast some light into one of the very dark corners of early white society institutions.
Hangman by Jack Heath
Meet Timothy Blake, codename Hangman. Blake is a genius, known for solving impossible cases. He's also a psychopath with a dark secret, and the FBI's last resort.
A 14-year-old boy vanishes on his way home from school. His frantic mother receives a terrifying ransom call. It's only hours before the deadline, and the police have no leads.
Enter Timothy Blake, codename Hangman. Blake is a genius, known for solving impossible cases. He's also a dangerous criminal - the FBI's last resort.
I've always been a massive fan of Paul Cleave's writing and his novel THE CLEANER ticked so many boxes for me, considerably more than the Dexter franchise in which the first novel was okay, but things went downhill when the violence became too gory and it was hard to avoid a sinking feeling of sensationalism. When it comes to sensationalism though I reckon HANGMAN has it all over every single book that it's obviously a homage to ... in blood soaked, gore dripping, dented from over-use, spades.
This is obviously going to be a novel that polarises readers. I get there's humour attempted here, I get that the over the topness is part of the "thing", and I fully acknowledge that I obviously missed the joke, or the overtness just didn't work for me. I pretty much rolled my eyes, harrumphed and sighed my way through the entire thing. The twist was easy to guess, the storyline felt overtly manipulative, the plot holes and logic gaps not sufficiently compensated for, and I still can't work out how on earth the female FBI agent ever qualified because she comes across as too dumb to find her shoes, let alone tie her laces. On the upside the humour, if it works for you, and the over the top nature of it, if it works for you, will undoubtedly make some readers very happy with this novel. For an alternative viewpoint from somebody who didn't have anywhere near as negative a reaction I'd suggest you try Robert Goodman's review: https://www.austcrimefiction.org/review/hangman-jack-heath
Wedderburn, Maryrose Cuskelly
'The slaughter was extravagant and bloody. And yet there were people in the small town of Wedderburn in Central Victoria who, while they did not exactly rejoice, quietly thought that Ian Jamieson had done them all a favour.'
WEDDERBURN is not just a book, it's a small community situated in North Central Victoria - in the area known as the Golden Triangle. Like so many small communities out here, it's battling drought, population decline, and doing a pretty good job at holding back the tide. In 2014 when the unthinkable happened everyone with any connections or knowledge of the place couldn't help but wonder what on earth would trigger such an appalling act.
The primary reason behind this book, and the reading of it, has to be to search for a meaning. The weirdness of these awful murders was followed closely by the weirdness of shifting pleas by Ian Jamieson, and ultimately, no trial to explore that meaning fully and provide understanding for those left to mourn. It seems Peter Lockhart was known to be a "bit of a stirrer" and there had been niggling arguments over dust being raised when Lockhart was carting water, there was tension over cropping activities, basically tension, stirring and odd reactions left right and centre from the sounds of it. What would make somebody turn from being a bit pissed off with a neighbour to extreme, and very explicit violence (the injuries inflicted on the Lockhart's had particularly nasty overtones) is anybody's guess, although Cuskelly does raise a possible psychological explanation of male friendship turning toxic that was particularly compelling.
Jamieson originally pleaded guilty to the shooting murders of Mary and Peter Lockhart and not guilty to the stabbing murder of Greg Holmes. Holmes was the first to die, and Jamieson's switch to a third guilty plea and then an attempt to return to not guilty again muddied the waters and created a technical legal argument that all but obscured the crimes, and his victims. But provocation seems to have been at the heart of all of Jamieson's protestations - despite much of what he claimed had occurred at the time that Greg Holmes died not being supported by the evidence or logic. By pleading guilty to the Lockhart murders at least he acknowledged the deliberate, cold and calculating way he went about it - even if he seems to have ended up feeling resentful of everything and everybody - including the legal system.
Reading another book about rural locations recently (political not criminal that time), there was a comment in it that resonates, and I'm paraphrasing here but, in large cities, different types of people and circumstances are often divided into postcodes, but in small towns they live up close and personal. I've always said there's nothing really different about people in rural and regional locations to those from the big city, it's just harder to ignore. Tolerance, forbearance, amused observations, bitching, whinging, stirring and being stirred up are all part of daily life. How somebody responds to the minor irritations of life often says more about the annoyee than the annoyer, and it's hard to come away from WEDDERBURN without a very clear picture in your head of two blokes, having at each other on a regular basis, niggling and pissing each other off - with one having had a lifetime's practice at being the annoyer and one not handling being the annoyee until all hell broke lose.
For the record - the blurb quote ending "done them all a favour" is, in my opinion, sensationalist and not fair to the book, the entire community and the victims. Nobody deserves the sorts of deaths that Greg Holmes, his mother Mary and her husband Peter Lockhart were subjected to and there are family and friends out there still suffering. Especially as, after reading the book and understanding as much as can be of the circumstances, it's not justified in anyway by anyone's behaviour before or during the murders, and definitely not during the long-drawn-out legal proceedings that Jamieson inflicted on everyone. Seeking an explanation is the task of books like WEDDERBURN and it does this incredibly well, much better than that one quote indicates.
This I Would Kill For, Anne Buist
Natalie King has been hired to do a psychiatric evaluation for the children’s court. A custody dispute. Not her usual territory, but now that she’s pregnant she’s happy to do a simple consult.
Turns out Jenna and Malik’s break-up is anything but simple. He claims she’s crazy and compulsive; she claims he’s been abusing their daughter Chelsea.
But what if all the claims are true? Or none? How can Natalie protect the child? And how does she work out where her concerns for Chelsea slide into her growing obsession with her own lost father?
This is a series that started out with much promise, which alas hasn't been delivered in THIS I WOULD KILL FOR.
On the psychological thriller side of the equation, this was deeply unconvincing. A child abuser that was obvious from his first appearance, a central protagonist that's gone from a bit of a maverick to unprofessional, wilfully childish and tiresome; and a storyline balance heavily weighted towards too much of the personal, too much baby talk and enough fluff around the edges to make you sneeze. And don't get me started on the persistent "explanations" and mind-boggling tediousness of the coy and childish games around twitter all of which clearly indicates that this outing in the Natalie King series was a disappointment.