Category Archives: Noir

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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Sequel City Part 1 – Sandman Slim

The Getaway God by Richard KadreyReview: The Getaway God by Richard Kadrey (Harper Voyager, 2014)

Okay, so the next three or possibly four reviews I write are going to be sequels, conclusions or in some way connected with books I’ve previously reviewed. This may be boring for some readers but I’ll try to keep them brief and get them out of the way quickly. First up (well, second if you count The Rhesus Chart) is Richard Kadrey’s sixth in the stunning and almost unbearably cool Sandman Slim series.

The last time we met John Stark aka Sandman Slim he was fighting off fragments of gods from before time, the Angra, under an abandoned beachfront mall known as Kill City. Stark isn’t your regular guy you see, he’s a Nephilim, an Abomination. Imagine an angel who gives less than a flying fuck about most of the world, carries grudges like dogs carry fleas and smokes and drinks enough to put the whole of Russia in an early grave. That’s kind of on the right tracks.

Having been sent to Hell while he still assumed he was a regular mortal, forced to fight in their arenas, returned to avenge those who sent him there, made pals with the five fragments of God (they don’t get on), become Lucifer for a while, fought off plagues of zombies and hideous proto-angels from other dimensions, Slim is finally settling down. Now he’s working for the Golden Vigil, a government department charged with all things supernatural. His remit is to discover the workings of the Magic 8-Ball aka the Godeater, a rather potent device with an obvious purpose. Unfortunately it seems the world is ending. Los Angeles is being drenched by a Biblical deluge; Hell is being drenched by the blood raining down from the latest war in Heaven; and the Angra are looking to take their universe back for the sole purpose of ending it. One part of God is dead, another crazy, one neurotic and the other two, well, just kinda mopey. It seems a tad hopeless. Time for Sandman to step up to the plate again.

This latest installment represents a new, more mature Stark. Always previously the darkest of anti-heroes he now begins to show his human side a little more. He actually… cares! No seriously, this is a big thing. While unrepentantly nihilistic pseudo-Angels can be fun to follow for a while, Sandman Slim was in danger of becoming too one-dimensional, a one-trick pony. In The Getaway God, Richard Kadrey has finally opened him up and turned him into a far more rounded character. This courtesy has been extended to a number of the major players as well, with significant depth added to Mr Muninn, Samael, Candy and others.

It’s a pretty no-holds-barred romp too with Kadrey pulling no punches. The stakes have been raised pretty high in this episode with the future of all reality in the balance so it seems as good a time as any to go all George RR Martin on the cast and scenery. He’s done this in the past of course but for some reason the major events in The Getaway God seem to carry more weight, elevating it above its pulpy noir origins and giving it some serious heft.

I don’t know how well The Getaway God will appeal to new readers, given the serious amount of background which has gone before, but I’m pretty sure you could just jump in here and still love it. For anyone who has read and loved the first five books (if you’ve read them and didn’t love them then get the hell off my blog), you’re in for the best ride yet. Oh, and can I just add that the new pulp cinema-style covers are freakin’ awesome…

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Katja From The Punk Band by Simon Logan

Katja from the Punk Band by Simon LoganReview: Katja From The Punk Band by Simon Logan (ChiZine Publications, 2010)

Note: Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing the ARC of this title.

Never judge a book by it’s cover? Pshaw, worthless advice. It’s a fair bet that any title bearing a glorious image of Rush Limbaugh trampling his godless, commie foes under the feet of his warsteed is not going to be my cup of tea. But the real reason to ignore this advice is not so much that a crappy cover very often does indicate a crappy book (with rare exceptions, eg Last God Standing). No, it’s that it urges you to miss out on the wonderland awaiting you if you catch a glimpse of exciting artwork and dive right out with nary a thought for cover blurb. I’ve been a fan of this style ever since my school friend acquired Soundgarden’s classic Louder Than Love LP on the same grounds.

So it was that I was browsing through NetGalley’s available titles and stumbled across Katja From The Punk Band. Written by one Simon Logan. Nope, never heard of him. Published by ChiZine. Nope, sorry. But an awesome gritty photo of a heavily-pierced, moody girl sporting a mohawk and emblazoned with a Soviet-esque typeface? Yeah, I’ll take it. Something to do with islands and drugs and criminals, I didn’t pay too much attention. It was a good choice.

Katja From The Punk Band is a straight-up thriller with a dark, near-future, urban feel and hints towards sci-fi. The setting is an unnamed island, isolated from the mainland and supplied regularly by a variety of shipping vessels. The island is a grotty place, decaying and overflowing with all manner of undesirable, an air of violence and distrust looming large around every corner. Denizens of the island have seem to fall into two categories: those who are content with carving out their own niche in the industrial squalor and those who just want to get the hell out, although the second option is made nigh-on impossible by tight and unexplained restrictions on travel.

Katja belongs to the latter group. A former junkie and general delinquent, she’s trying to make her way playing bass in her punk band with little hope of the future until her boyfriend(?) Janucsz is ordered by a local drug lord to smuggle a vial of a novel concoction to the mainland. There will be no need to return and he has a plus-one guest pass. Unfortunately things like this never go to plan – well, books would be boring otherwise – and after a violent argument with her man, Katja soon finds herself pursued by two major criminals, one enraged middleman, an addled junkie and her parole officer. All of these problems will disappear if she can only make it to the boat on time and hold on to the precious vial but a lot of bullets stand between her and that goal.

Katja From The Punk Band is further evidence that great surprises lie in the most unsuspecting places. Given that I had zero expectations I rattled through it at a fair old pace, although it is admittedly rather short, and was pleasantly upset to find it ending so soon. I wanted more. The prose is terse and sharp, Logan wastes barely a word and has no time for flowery descriptions or scene-setting. Instead he lets the actions speak for itself, jumping between first-person viewpoints from chapter to chapter and leaping back and forwards in time in cinematic fashion as the narrative demands. Despite his bare-bones approach you get a real feel for the desperation blanketing the island and never feel the need to question its origins or background – it simply is. The cast of Russian names lends weight to the atmosphere, is this is a fantasy world or inspired by some very real enclave in the hidden recesses of the former Soviet empire?

Despite a couple of questionable plot twists and action scenes – the parole officers role in things seemed kinda pointless to me for example – Katja From The Punk Band is a well-written and easily-digested piece of gritty modern urban fiction. There’s apparently a sequel already available, Get Katja, although I’d honestly be more interested to see what author Simon Logan can do when he turns his pen to other subjects. This is never going to win any Booker prizes but definitely worth a look if thrillers, noir and awesome punk anti-heroines are your deal.

 

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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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Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey

Kill City Blues - Richard KadreyReview: Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey (Harper Voyager, 2013)

The story so far: James Stark, an aspiring young magician – and we’re talking real magic here, not card tricks – is sent to Hell by a ruthlessly ambitious colleague who goes on to murder Stark’s girlfriend. For eleven years Stark is forced to compete in Hell’s arenas. During this time it comes to his attention that he is somewhat hard to kill, becoming impervious to any attacks unsuccessfully used against him. This brings him to the attention of Samael who turns him into a personal assassin, earning him the nickname Sandman Slim and a special place in Hellion nightmares.

On clawing his way out of the Underworld he exacts his revenge against those who destroyed his life, cavorting around Los Angeles to highly destructive effect. Cue entanglements with Homeland Security’s paranormal division (The Vigil), a vicious and disillusioned angel (Aelita), violent creatures from before the dawn of time (the Kissi) and of course vampires, zombies and neo-Nazis. Did I mention he also becomes Lucifer for a period, reigning over the chaos that is Hell? Oh, and that he’s a Nephilim, half angel, having been sired by Uriel? Or that he’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, sarcastic and foul-mouthed son-of-a-bitch? Well, there you go, you’re up to speed.

Kill City Blues, fifth installment in the adventures of Sandman Slim and his merry band, carries off directly from where Devil Said Bang left off. Back in LA, Stark is still reeling from his time as Lucifer. Unfortunately the universe never takes a break. You see, it transpires that God didn’t create the universe, rather he tricked its creators, the Angra, out of it. These Elder Gods are displeased and beginning to find holes in reality large enough to allow them through to our domain.

Sandman was entrusted with a weapon, the only of its kind, which is capable of destroying gods – the Qomrama Om Ya – but he, erm, misplaced it. To further complicate matters, the God who did the original tricking had something of a nervous breakdown and shattered into five separate beings, none of which particularly like the others. One of these aspects is dead, one (Mr Munnin, the most reasonable) currently rules over Hell while the most unhinged still sits on the throne of Heaven. Against this background Stark must relocate the Qomrama Om Ya while pursued by several other factions with the same intent, all of whom are convinced he must know where it is.

Kill City Blues, given such a premise, should have been a surefire hit. Indeed, I’d been awaiting this book for some time. So why doesn’t it quite hit the spot? Well despite the potential-laden plot, Kadrey spends the first half off the novel rehashing old ground. It feels at times as though this was written specifically for those who hadn’t bothered to read the first four novels in the series. This is where Stark’s from. This is how he got here. This is how he met X, Y and Z. This is what in-jokes A, B and C refer to. And so on. Don’t get me wrong, Sandman’s caustic wit, the expert use of ridiculous metaphor and the beautifully sleazy images of an LA alive with magic are all there. It’s just that all the foot-dragging starts to grate after a while.

And then there’s the action itself. In a book entitled Kill City Blues you’d expect the city in question to make an appearance early on, right? But no, we have to wait until past the halfway mark to discover what it is, why it’s important and whether anyone is ever going to get there. And once we do arrive it feels as though you’ve gone into a store at five minutes to closing time, rushed through by the clerks and unceremoniously ejected before the shutters come down.

Now it may sound like I didn’t like the book. That’s not true. I smashed through Kill City Blues in record time, barely stopping for breath. In a page-by-page sense it’s a pulpy, delicious slice of fun pie. It’s when you take it as a whole that the cracks appear. Instead of devoting half of the book to rehashing the background and running a couple of wild goose chases, this could have been handled in a couple of chapters and left more space for what should have been an epic journey through Kill City. There would have been more opportunity to develop some of the characters within – more Grays please! – and it would have felt more complete and less like the first half of a larger book.

So it’s a mixed bag. If you’re already a Sandman Slim devotee then Kill City Blues will certainly keep you on the level till the next fix appears. However it’s not going to reach the heights of previous outings so lower expectations accordingly. Hopefully part six will provide the apocalyptic bang promised but not delivered here.

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Dead Pig Collector by Warren Ellis

Dead Pig Collector by Warren EllisReview: Dead Pig Collector by Warren Ellis (FSG  Originals, 2013)

Ever wondered how they do it? Those people you hire to execute your spouse, business partner, rival or whoever happens to have stoked the fires of vengeance within you? For starters there’s the dirty deed itself, the taking of a life. Requires something of a detached personality don’t you think? But then there’s the clean-up. I mean just think of the various fibres and fluids composing a human body. We’re wrapped in cloth, bound by skin, motivated by muscle, supported by bone, vitalised by copious amounts of blood, directed by grey matter. And the excreta, don’t forget the excreta. How does one even begin to deal with all of this?

In Dead Pig Collector, Warren Ellis takes us behind the scenes of this most secretive and complex of occupations. Following a day in the life of Mr. Sun we are walked through the aftermath of what happens when sex and business collide. Someone always gets hurt, we know that much. How much pain and what happens next, that’s the question. In this case things take a turn from the unexpected right from the outset but out protagonist, entirely unruffled by his situation, sets about his procedure with an eager spectator in tow.

Weighing in at a mere 40 pages, Dead Pig Collector is more a vignette than anything else, a one-act play drenched in blood, guts and gleeful black humour. Ellis, whose works include the legendary Transmetropolitan comics and, most recently, the wonderfully gritty Gun Machine, has created an immediately believable (and almost likeable) assassin and cleaner in a very brief time. Told entirely in first person narrative, the story puts us right behind his eyes and the ride is alternately chilling and hilarious. Setting and characterisation are kept to the bare bones but the sparse build-up ensures that not a second is wasted on irrelevancies. The result is a lean yet muscular story which squeezes everything it can out of its limited time.

Warren Ellis is already renowned for the gritty, honest feel of his fiction and this outing is no exception. The clinical, process-driven manner in which the titular collector goes about his work both entrances and horrifies, echoing the banality of his namesake Bret Easton Ellis’s creation Patrick Bateman. The ease with which he makes the cleaning and disposal of human remains seem entirely commonplace, while human interaction reeks of unease, is quite staggering. Perhaps most disturbing is the level of authenticity brought to proceedings. The tiniest minutiae of the grisly routine are cast under the spotlight, turning Dead Pig Collector into Corpse Disposal 101 . You have to wonder what exactly Ellis did for money before deciding to pick up a pen…

Anyway, I’ll not spend much longer on this since it’s, well, so short. Buy it, spend a fleeting hour reading it, then replace the victim with your own personal nemesis. Trust me, it’s healthy.

 

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