Category Archives: Crime

Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters by Lauren BeukesReview: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (Harper Collins, 2014)

It’s easy to gush praise for Lauren Beukes. Sounds sycophantic but it’s just plain true. First she gave us the wonderfully grim and gritty broken slab of cyberpunk that was Moxyland. Then she went all weird animal spirit and missing persons with Zoo City. Then, just to show off, she went and wrote Shining Girls, one of my favourite urban fantasy/horror/crime stories ever. In fact my girlfriend just finished reading the Mandarin translation, taking a good while to complete it due to it being “too exciting to read before sleeping”. So when I heard her latest, Broken Monsters, had hit the bookshelves I was into the virtual library like a shot and racing to my ebook reader with a brand new bundle of 1s and 0s.

And my first thought was, “Why am I reading a police procedural novel?”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of crime fiction done well. It’s just that based on past form I was expecting something altogether more fantastic than what seemed to be on offer here. Broken Monsters kicks off in heavy disguise, looking for all the world like a more artistic Silence Of The Lambs. A twisted killer with a penchant for animals and art is stalking the streets of abandoned and broken Detroit. Earnestly trying to both track down the culprit while caring for an increasingly wayward teenage daughter is Detective Versado and a wonderfully fleshed-out assortment of Detroit’s finest.

If there was nothing more to Broken Monsters than a cat-and-mouse then there would be little to lift it above the ranks of airport crime novels but this is Lauren Beukes. The narrative is fragmented into a handful of different viewpoints. Not only do we get to ride along with Versado, her daughter and the killer but we get to experience the viewpoint of some other spanners in the works. First there is the washed-up journalist/author trying to get his career back on track after burning every bridge he could lay his hands on. Thanks to his newly-acquired and ever-so-hip and young DJ girlfriend he’s soon tuned into ‘new media’ and the horde of eyeballs waiting on the other side of a YouTube channel. And then there is the human wreckage of Detroit, represented by a band of homeless friends scraping a living by scouring abandoned buildings for anything salvageable. Inevitably their paths collide in a rather spectacular manner.

One of the key thread in Broken Monsters, alongside the ode to Detroit and the countless other magnificent living ruins in our midst, is the exploration of media sensationalism and the potential for our fascination and hunger to fuel the darker sides of our natures. This isn’t meant in the sense of the patently ridiculous ‘video games and horror movies will turn your children psycho’ trope. Rather it’s about the very real violence we gorge ourselves on every time we turn on the news or open a paper. Living in Taiwan this strikes a very real chord, being surrounded by news stories of teens and young adults going on knife-wielding rampages. Every murder is pored over in sickening detail by every news channel. The pictures run constantly: the bodies; the wailing family; the scornful politicians; the shocked friends. And yet the carnage continues at an ever greater pace. Makes you think…

And of course it wouldn’t be Lauren Beukes unless there was something going on behind the scenes. As soon as you get the sense that this is no ordinary killer, not just a man with a simple screw loose, the novel is elevated from a particularly gripping thriller to an unnerving almost-ghost story, one which refuses to allow simple categories to pin it down. It’s tempting to label it as horror but it is so much more because the horror comes from revealing what is worst about the world around us rather than relying on the unreal elements to bring the dread. Elements from her previous two books are very obvious here (indeed she admitted that she was originally worried that she was just re-writing Shining Girls) but they are melded together with crucial new strands which make this book a logical progression from what she has accomplished before. Shining Girls managed to gather her a pretty sizeable following but hopefully this will be the title which will lead to the acclaim she deserves.

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Filed under Crime, Horror, Supernatural, Thriller, Urban Fantasy

Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres

Peacemaker by Marianne De PierresReview: Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres (Angry Robot, 2014)

Note – thanks to NetGalley and Angry Robot for providing the ARC of this title.

The place is Australia, the time somewhere in the not-too-distant future. In this world the steady encroachment of human dwellings into unspoiled natural lands has continued to frightening extremes. Very few areas of parkland remain and Birrinum Park is one of those. Despite the lack of obvious clues as to its location in the book I’ve decided it’s somewhere near Melbourne because I lived there for a year and it’s bloody lovely. So there. The unfortunately-monickered Virgin Jackson is a hard-working park ranger following in the footsteps of her deceased father. Willful and not entirely respectful of authority she finds herself roaming the park after hours one evening and stumbles across a couple of strangers who have no business being there. Before you know it she’s dealing with a dead body, a disappeared person and the reappearance of ghostly bird she’d last seen years ago.

Enter Nate Sixkiller (yeah, seriously), a US Marshall drafted in to help deal with the unfolding situation in Birrinum. It seems Virgin doesn’t work well with company and the imposing Native American lawman is no exception. Before long though they’re both embroiled in a plot involving shady secret societies, magical totems and animal spirit guardians. Virgin finds herself battling rival gangs, the police, her bosses and her own distrustful, reckless attitude with only a supernatural eagle to keep her in check.

If that all sounds a bit ridiculous to you then don’t worry, I wholeheartedly agree. Peacemaker is a random grab-bag of disparate elements but for all that it hangs together remarkably well. It’s not without flaws for sure. The attempts at writing in an American accent are clumsy and entirely unnecessary to the point of distraction at times. Also the plot seems to progress in fits and starts at times, almost as if a case of writers block had been solved by tossing a dart at a ‘what happens next’ board. More than these gripes though, what seemed to me to be part of the book’s core – the spirit animals – are left almost completely unexplained. I’m all for a bit of fill-in-the-blanks mystery in my books but come on, this is the one fantasy element in the book and we’re given almost nothing to go on except ‘there are these animals and they’re like ghosts but they’re not’. Maybe the next book will remedy the situation.

That said, Peacemaker is nothing if not a lot of fun. Yes it is strung together by a lot of random threads and influences but it’s done in such a carefree fashion that it’s hard not to like it. The characters are over-the-top in classic comic-book style, especially Sixkiller, and as such come to life pretty easily in your mind. Sometimes Virgin comes across as a little too whiny and shallow but I found myself rooting for her despite myself. There’s a lot of scope for development in the universe Marianne De Pierres has conjured up and hopefully its potential will be realised as her style matures.

So it’s a mixed bag really but one which manages to come out on top. Is it an all-time classic? Nope. Is it worth picking up for a quick, fun read on a rainy spring afternoon? For sure.

 

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Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Red Harvest by Dashiell HammettReview: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (Vintage, 1989)

“Who shot him? I asked. The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: Somebody with a gun.”

Some years ago, thanks in main to the literary preferences of then-Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli, I embarked on a lengthy hardboiled crime fiction kick. Starting with James Ellroy’s LA Quartet I worked my way through the cream of the modern noir fiction while also taking time to dip into Raymond Chandler to see where it began. For some reason though, Dashiell Hammett, equally if not more influential, never landed on my reading list. Not until recently when an article on the greatest antiheroes ever surfaced on sci-fi blog io9. This list was naturally predominated by space-pirates and their ilk, but there in the middle lay Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. This was as sure a sign as any that I had ignored him too long.

The protagonist of Red Harvest, incidentally Hammett’s first novel, is such a quintessential antihero that he doesn’t even have a name. Representing the Continental Detective Agency, he’s an anonymous rogue element sent into the town of Personville (aka Poisonville) to get to the bottom of a recent murder. Before long  he realises that Personville is a foul open sore of a town. The key players vying for control of their tiny, inconsequential turf care only about how much power they can muster, apparently all suffering from severe cases of small-dick syndrome. It’s remarkable how little time it takes for the Continental Op to become utterly sickened with the petty internal politics of the town and begin to clean house. What begins as a simple detective story soon descends into a beautifully amoral tale of double-crosses, revenge and buckets of blood.

The inhabitants of Personville are all larger-than-life dirtbags, par for the course in the noir world. All of them are armed to the teeth axes to grind, skeletons in their closets and scores to settle. Their mutual obsession with respect, control and power makes it all too easy for the Op to inveigle his way into their confidences. Little by little he spins a masterful web of half-truths and distortions such that each of his transgressions is immediately seized upon by his prey as evidence of a grand conspiracy against them. Where’s there’s smoke there’s gunfire and once the body count starts mounting there’s no respite to be had. The criminal elements of Personville need little encouragement to do the Op’s job for him.

Red Harvest is a revenge fantasy par excellence. Of course it can be read simply as the noir yarn it is on the surface and it will be enjoyed greatly. But try reading it while thinking a little about the world you inhabit. Bring to mind those politicians lining their pockets while stripping yours bare. Think a little about your bosses and their bosses. About the lady who cut in front of you in the checkout line or the guy who stole your parking spot. About the girl/guy who cheated on you/scratched your favourite CD/forgot your birthday. Soon you’ll be seeing their faces in your mind’s eye, plastered onto the bodies Personville’s doomed criminal population. It’s a cathartic read for sure.

Above all else it’s worth reading for his prose alone. The biting humour and the terse rhythm of the writing snare you quickly and don’t let go till the bloodbath reaches it’s climax. It’s easy to see how Hammett exerted such influence, still easily recognisable today, on the noir genre and beyond. But don’t take my word for it. Pick up this book now and, if you haven’t already, augment it with The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. See a master at work, then chide your current favourite author for ripping him off so mercilessly

 

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Filed under Crime, Detective