Category Archives: Detective

Sequel City Part 2 – The Last Policeman

World Of Trouble by Ben H WintersReview: World Of Trouble by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books, 2014)

It’s finally the end of the road for Detective Hank Palace. The asteroid which has been hurtling towards Earth on a 100% confirmed collision course, primed to wipe out all life on the planet, is on final approach. Society is duly crumbling even further. Infrastructure has collapsed, the government has bugged out and gone home. And yet Palace still won’t lay his badge to rest because he has one final case to wrap up. Before the end he must find his wayward sister, make sure she is safe just one last time.

The premise for World Of Trouble, concluding chapter of the Last Policeman trilogy, takes us squarely back into detective noir territory. Strip away the asteroid and the surrounding panic and what you’re left with could have come straight out of Dashiell Hammett. Girl falls in with a bad crowd, disappears, detective has to track her down. Along the way complications ensue. A cold trail, a half-dead girl and a missing bad guy. That the world happens to be going to hell in a handbasket all around almost becomes a footnote.

What lifts it above the rest of the crop isn’t the sci-fi backdrop thought, but the character of Palace himself. No weary, hard-knuckled bruisers here; he’s the polar opposite of the usual jaded noir anti-hero. Hank’s still a rookie more or less and, though no naive fool, his sense of duty propels him forward with relentless force. Between his urge to finish his case no matter what and his unswerving desire to simply do what’s right he’s an uncommonly positive protagonist.

For me that’s what has made the Last Policeman trilogy one of the finest and most refreshing book sagas of recent years. What could easily have turned into another grim, grimy, gritty tale of societal collapse in the face of impending doom has instead been masterfully transformed into an overwhelmingly upbeat tale. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows obviously – given the subject matter that could never be the case. But there’s a thread of optimism running the whole way through. Right up to the inevitable final page I was suffused with a sense of calm. Not thinking that everything was going to be alright, nothing so foolish, simply content to know that someone out there someone was keeping his head.

If you’ve already read the previous two books then you are in for a treat with World Of Trouble. It wraps up the tale perfectly, pulling no punches yet never succumbing to the hysteria seizing the world in which it’s set. If you’re new to it then get to the bookstore and buy all three. Settle into a comfy chair and prepare for a journey.

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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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Hang Wire by Adam Christopher

Hang Wire by Adam ChristopherReview: Hang Wire by Adam Christopher (Angry Robot, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Angry Robot for providing the Advance Reading Copy of this title.

Something is rotten in the city of San Francisco. A serial killer stalks the streets, selecting his victims under cover of night and garroting them with high tensile steel. The nickname bestowed upon him by the media? The Hang Wire Killer. An organisation of news bloggers covering current events in the city is out celebrating when a booby-trapped fortune cookie blows the roof off their party. During all this the circus has come to town but something sinister is lurking within. Trouble is brewing and the only hope for the city, and indeed the world, may be the ancient gods lurking unknown among us since time immemorial.

Well, if that isn’t a set-up for a gloriously silly and enjoyable book I don’t know what is…

Hang Wire hangs together through a series of flashbacks, slowly filling in the gaps telling us how the state of affairs came to be. A trail of murders and a quest for power provide the background, while in the present things get ever stranger. Ted, the blogger injured in the cookie attack, is recovering quickly with seemingly no ill effects. Not until he starts sporadically losing consciousness and awakening with no memory of what happened. His co-workers are worried, particularly his partner Alison, but there seems to be nothing they can do. But then Benny starts acting strange, and who invited Bob the beach bum dance instructor to the party?

And then there’s the circus. Little by little the camaraderie which binds the workers together seems to be unravelling. Fistfights are breaking out and tensions are high. The ringleader is acting strangely and the star attraction, tightrope walker High Wire, refuses to practice with his crew and disappears at night. Exacerbating matters are the Celtic dance troupe, taking their fire rituals a little more seriously than would be comfortable.

Hang Wire tells a number of tales all at once. It’s a detective story, a horror, a little bit of science fiction and a lot of urban fantasy. It’s a heady mix and throwing all these elements together means Adam Christopher is able to keep things rolling along at a hell of a pace. Just when you think you’ve got one thread untangled, bam! He hits you with a new murderer, superhero or plain old deity. Weaving all this together requires a lot of moving around, not only in space but also time, yet the story never really loses its way. Somehow coherence is maintained while you’re reeling from one supremely confusing (or confused) viewpoint to another.

Which brings me to another of Hang Wire‘s strong points. An intricate plot like this requires a large cast and this is where many similar novels fall down. By sacrificing quantity for quality, many authors wind up with an ensemble of paper-thin caricatures, leaving the entire book without any weight. Adam Christopher in comparison manages to imbue each of his lead characters with distinct personalities and motivations, lending his story an unexpected heft. Even minor players have their important roles in the story and he handles each as an individual, not merely as disposable plot elements. More of this in contemporary storytelling please.

Unfortunately the diversity of elements at play, while being one of Hang Wire‘s strengths, was also for me one of its weaknesses. At points it just gets a little too much. In the beginning everything seems fine and the story develops with just the right amount of novelty and surprise but somewhere around the halfway point you start thinking, “Are you kidding? Now there’s a samurai? And a magic monkey?”. Maybe it’s just me but I felt he could maybe have reined in the craziness a little and saved some of it for a sequel. However as I said earlier the book never loses its cohesion despite everything which is going on. Something of a miracle if you ask me.

Son on the whole Hang Wire gets a big thumbs up. The urban fantasy genre may have become a little saturated of late but this is certainly a fresh addition to the shelf. From psychotic gods to ancient forces lurking beneath, from living ferris wheels to evil Riverdance, Adam Christopher packs it all in. Just remember to suspend your disbelief for the duration, or send it to the pub for the evening…

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Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

Countdown City by Ben H WintersReview: Countdown City by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books, 2013)

The Last Policeman (reviewed here)was a refreshingly original take on the noir genre. Hank Palace, a newly promoted detective, follows up a dead body found in the restrooms of a diner. The official verdict is suicide but Hank feels there is something more at work here and follows his gut. Soon he uncovers something sinister and is on the trail of what now seems to be a murder case. So what set it apart from the rest of the genre? Well, that would be the massive asteroid on a 100% certain collision course with earth, set to obliterate all life. While society crumbles around him, Hank stays true to his profession, intent on bringing those responsible to justice despite the fact that, in the long run, it will all be for nothing.

Countdown City takes off a few months later and things are looking grim. The police force has all but been disbanded and Hank is now a mere civilian. This doesn’t stop him from following his calling though and he still pounds the streets and looking after his own. Soon he is contacted by Martha, a desperate wife whose husband has disappeared. The remaining law enforcement units don’t have time for this – runaways are the norm given the circumstances – so Hank takes up the case. What initially seems to be an open and shut case of desertion soon turns out to be something altogether stranger and more dangerous.

The remainder of Countdown City unfolds more or less conventionally as our former detective finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into a world of conspiracies and freedom fighters. This aspect of the novel is handled with the same aplomb as in The Last Policeman, reading much like an updated Chandler tale. The rhythm of the prose and attention to detail alone are enough to place it in the higher echelons of crime fiction. However, as with its predecessor, it’s the extraordinary circumstances which elevate it above the norm.

Where the first installment introduced us to a world slowly becoming aware of its own impending doom, people slowly giving up hope and abandoning their responsibilities to the pursuit of hedonism, things here have deteriorated considerably. Lawlessness has now taken hold and dangers are everywhere. With the collapse of most industries there is a rise in black market trafficking of all kind of goods, from food to medicines to baseball memorabilia. While these are largely peaceful, community efforts there is a darker side where morality and trust have been thrown out of the window.

Running counter to this some citizens still retain a glimmer of hope and dignity. We see one group of people fighting against the government blockades which prevent refugees from the asteroid’s likely strike zone from reaching America’s shores. At the same time a mass of students and like-minded thinkers have occupied a university’s grounds, forming their own experimental society in which to see out the end of the world. Naturally a non-heirarchical utopia formed by a bunch of people who are barely adults is riddled with flaws but the very fact of their trying is the point, not their success or otherwise.

For me the draw of The Last Policeman and Countdown City is the thinking they inspire. We’re all used to the post-apocalyptic visions of descent into savagery and the collapse of society but could it be different? Could people hold it together enough to salvage something worthwhile. While I try to imagine myself as a noble hero like Detective Palace I know that it’s far more likely I’d join the bucket-list crowd, spending my remaining months exploring the world and all it has to offer before it’s gone. And would that even be a bad thing? When faced with certain annihilation do we retain all of our responsibilities to ourselves and others? Or are we somewhat freed from the social contract? Well, not to the point of murder, but to throw caution to the wind and simply pursue happiness. Can we do that now, in the absence of an impending apocalypse? And if not, why not? Then I realise that while I admire Hank’s steadfastness in his duty I still think he’s a little unhinged.

If you haven’t already read The Last Policeman then I highly recommend grabbing it and Countdown City while waiting for the conclusion to this brilliant and thoughtful trilogy. Come for the noir but stay for the extended detours which your train of thought will doubtless take along the way.

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Crosslink: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Silly me, I keep forgetting to link to the reviews which I post over at Splendibird’s blog. Oh well, time to make up for lost time. The most recent was Lauren Beukes exceedingly original and well-paced time-travel thriller, The Shining Girls. Set in an immaculately recreated Chicago it tells the tale of Kirby Mazrachi, a gifted young girl who is visited by a mysterious stranger as a child. Years later, the incident totally forgotten, she finds herself savagely assaulted and left for dead by the same man, aged not a single day. Disturbed in the middle of his attack, he disappears and is never heard of again, not until a grown Kirby starts piecing together various seemingly unconnected murders around the Chicago area spanning back almost a century.

Go check out the full review at Mountains Of Instead!

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Gun Machine

Gun Machine by Warren EllisReview: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis (Mulholland, 2013)

Detectives Tallow and Rosato, partners in the NYPD, are having a normal day sifting through the grotesque offences which the city serves them. Rosato is the trademark tough, no-nonsense cop replete with senses and reactions honed by years of experience although bearing a knee weakened by his wife’s insistence on taking up jogging to alleviate his mid-years spread. Tallow, well, not so much. A dedicated loner, he’s reached the mid-career malaise typical of so many on the force and is playing everything by the numbers and no more. Their next call tears the partnership apart.

By the end of the day Rosato is in a body bag, minus portions of his skull and brain. Tallow manages to take down the perpetrator, an overweight, shotgun-wielding maniac threatening to break down his landlord’s door due to an eviction notice and taking his frustration out on Rosato’s head instead. Following the shooting, Tallow winds up forcibly entering one of the apartments in the walk-up and what he discovers inside triggers a hallucinatory cat and mouse chase through the city that never sleeps.

The seemingly innocent yet improbably fortified door conceals the titular Gun Machine, an incredibly elaborate arrangement of handguns dating back hundreds of years and covering every surface. No sooner has Tallow been put on recuperative leave after the death of his partner than he finds himself reinstated. The arsenal is no ordinary collection of guns and he has unwittingly handed his lieutenant a nightmare. Every single weapon in the cache is implicated in a crime, it’s a virtual diary of hundreds of homicides, all preserved and tucked away in what should have been an impenetrable lair. Each and every one of the cases is now reopened and Tallow, weary and stressed from his partner’s death, has been saddled with the task of solving them – a mission impossible intended to be a final nail in the coffin of his career.

Mustering hidden reserves of strength and character, Tallow resolves not to thrown in the towel and commits himself body and soul to the task at hand. With help from his newfound accomplices at the CTU, Tali and Bat, he starts digging and uncovers a terrible secret. A seemingly supernatural killer, reaching out across the ages and plying his trade with impunity across Tallow’s home turf. Soon the investigation implicates some very high-up players in the city and Tallow finds himself fighting a battle on three fronts – against the killer, his conspirators and his own department.

Gun Machine is Warren Ellis’s second novel following the gleefully twisted Crooked Little Vein. Perhaps most famous for the rightful acclaimed Transmetropolitan comic series, Ellis is very comfortable fishing through the sewers of urban life. His fascination with all matters dark, especially those emanating from the human soul, comes through loud and clear in this volume. Tallow is a borderline depressive, distrusting of all human company and whose radio station of choice is the police band airing a non-stop litany of violence and degradation on New York’s streets. There is no character in this book who doesn’t have something to hide, whether a twisted vice or a collection of blood-drenched skeletons in their closet. Even the city itself becomes a dark, brooding presence ready to swallow anyone who takes a wrong turn.

It’s not all gloom and doom though. Ellis garnishes every gruesome act with enough caustic wit to dissolve any darkness before it becomes too oppressive. The double-team of Bat and Talia (a textbook sarcastic nerd and his overbearing lesbian boss) provides welcome doses of hilarious light relief in addition to the one-liners which pepper the book. Even while sapping all hope from, his characters Ellis manages to somehow retain a grim smile, teasing every bit of crooked joy he can out of their predicaments.

Gun Machine is an impressive book on many levels. As a police procedural novel it manages to avoid the well-worn cliches of the genre without straining incredulity to breaking point. At the same time it manages to be an investigation of the dark side of human nature and the sickness of modern life. And yet more, it is a redemption story of sorts, telling the tale of a man sent to the brink by fate and his own actions, yet grasping for a second chance while beset by foes on all sides. The vicious invective injected into the storyline is an added bonus, giving it a lively, wicked character where many other books of its kind fall flat. This is already shaping up to be one of the books of the year for me and it’s just a matter of time before I pick it up again for another run-through.

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Crosslink – The Last Policeman

The Mountains Of Instead have published my review for Ben H Winters’ The Last Policeman. It’s an engrossing read about a small-town detective who can’t shake his suspicion that the latest in a string of suicides was actually a murder. The gritty, noir thriller follows his investigation and could be just another cop story except for the reason behind the suicides. An asteroid is on a collision course with earth and is going to wipe out all life within six months. Check out the review here:

The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters

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