If noir is about good people making bad decisions, then John Rector has the genre down solid. His novels are filled with characters who get in over their heads, who make the wrong decision at every turn, who find themselves caught up in events they can't hope to escape from. And with his latest, Out of the Black, Rector once again shows why his is a winning formula. Former Marine Matt Caine is struggling to keep his life afloat after a brutal car crash kills his wife, leaving him and his daughter alone. Now Matt's in-laws want their grand-daughter to live with them, and Matt's life seems to be going nowhere. Which is why agrees to help his sleazy acquaintance with his plan to kidnap the wife of a rich local man. But things go spiraling out of control, and soon Matt is fighting not just for his family but for his life.
It's a quick read, Rector's tight prose demanding our attention, and his action sequences as sharp as any Hollywood thriller. But where Rector takes the lead over any Holldywood movie in his psychological acuity; there's a real sense of his characters living and breathing, of the way that they are affected by the events of the novel. The appeal of Taken - the movie that the publisher's blurb wants us to bear in mind when reading this novel - was in the sheer spectacle of Liam Neeson kicking ass. But with Out of the Black, its not just the action that grips us, but the sense that it might just be affecting Matt Caine, and that there may be very real consequences if things goes any more wrong than they already have.
Corrine Woodrow was known as the Wicked Witch of the East by the tabloids and as a "bloody weirdo" by the locals of the seaside town where she lived. But did she really kill one of her classmates when she was 15? And was there really a black magic connection? Cold case expert Sean Ward is trying to discover the truth twenty years after the fact, and what he's about to discover could change everything in the close knit community of Ernemouth.
Unsworth's The Singer remains one of my favourite novels of the last ten years, and with Weirdo she proves to be one of the most distinct and intelligent voices working in the UK today. In any genre. Sure, Weirdo has the basic structure of a crime novel, but its a commentary on isolation, loneliness and desperation and power. The more we discover about the truth of Corrine's conviction, the more we realise that our sympathies are driven not by what we know but by what we think we know. In the end, Unsworth's novel leaves you with powerful chills. If you haven't read Unsworth before, you need to start now. Hers is a powerful and unique talent.
The Bookseller with no name is back in Bateman's latest novel. The Bookseller is a brilliant creation, although he has softened a little over the past few books, his cycynism and implied psychopathy being played for more laughs than they were the first time out. But with Prisoner of Brenda - especially the end - Bateman gives the bookseller a little bite once again, leaving us wondering exactly how stable he really is.
The plot, as usual, is a mish-mash of literary injokes and inspired lunacy. A man has appeared at the local psychiatry unit, utterly silent, no clues as to his identity. When he kills another inmate, Nurse Brenda turns to our favourite bookseller/detective for advice. Meanwhile, someone murders a local gangster. And, of course, there's the problem of our bookseller being a father to contend with.
The set-piece jokes are often inspired, and the lunatic take on a Christie-esque final revelation is inspired. The puns are enough to invoke belly laughs and its even better if you work in the book trade or know a little something about books. The Bookseller's store is real, but its a shame that he himself is not.
Is it literature? Of course not. But its inspired fun with enough bite to make it worthwhile. Sure, Bateman's famous for his Dan Starkey series, but The Bookseller with no Name books are where the real fun is at.
Banks is one of the greatest UK noir writers of the past several years, and his evocation of the darker sides of the UK's mean streets have given us the brilliant Cal Innes sequence, as well as several standalone novels including the tense Gun and the nowhere-near-as-glamorous-as-you-might-believe California.
But Matador sees Banks swap the grey skies of the UK for the oppressive heat of the Costa-Del-Sol in this brilliant thriller, that ups the action but retains the attention-grabbing voice and the intelligence that has always marked him out from the rest of the pack.
The premise could be a Hollywood movie: a man wakes up in a shallow grave with a bullet in his head and no memory of who he was before he woke up. His only clue is a ticket to a bullfight with a telephone number scrawled on the back. As he searches for who he was, the trail leads him to drug dealers and gangsters, to a life he can't remember where death is a currency and a life is only valuable when its useful. But as the Matador discovers who he was, the men who tried to kill him will wish they'd succeeded the first time round. Its a novel about mistakes made, and second chances. As ever with Banks, the moral choices made by the characters are real, with consequences that truly affect the plot. Sure, its more of an action novel than we might be used to from Banks, but it moves with a slick confidence that shows the author's versatility, and more importantly, it doesn't sacrifice intelligence for thrills.
Banks plays slow burn for a while, but when he turns on the heat, the novel really moves. The Matador's descent into his old world is frightening and disorienting; we're right there with him as he uncovers the truth about who he was. The violence is painful and never gratuitous. The revelations are big, but never overplayed, This is the thinking man's action novel, and it shows a real versatility in Banks that will bring him new readers and reward old ones. Originally released as Kindle Serial, you can now buy Matador in its entirety, and you'll be glad of that: once you start Matador, you won't be putting it down.
The Boyfriend has a great premise for a serial killer novel, with our murderer establishing himself in the lives of women as their partner and then killing him when he's done. Its a bit of a rip off of the Westlake scripted The Stepfather, but still a great premise. And with a PI putting together the pieces that the police can't see, we have the set up for a great game of cat and mouse.
Sadly, The Boyfriend never quite comes together. There are some great moments in here, but it feels like the book is constantly in a rush to get to the gran set pieces and misses out on moments of characters. Here and there, there are nods to a wider world. But things never quite gel. Jack till, our detective hero, is the father of a daughter who has down's syndrome and yet acts like a perfectly normal teenage girl, making this detail of her life seem almost throwaway. Reading the book, I had to turn the pages back to check if I had read the information I thought I had, and wasn't confusing her with another character.
Its moments like this that rob The Boyfriend of its power. The basic plot is there. But the details leave the book lacking. The daughter's downs syndrome may be an attempt to establish our hero in a new light, but because it never impacts on anyone, it seems as though even the author forgot he'd mentioned that detail. I'm not asking that she be taken hostage or put in peril, but perhaps it could be used to throw some light on our detective's inner life, the same way that Irish detective Jack Taylor's attachment to young Grace in the novels by Ken Bruen gave an otherwise harsh hero a kind of humanity that was both unexpected and affecting. But the boyfriend eschews much potential emotion in its rush to reach its conclusion.
In all, the Boyfriend reads like an enthusiastic first draft. A little more care and attention to detail could have turned a fine novel into a gripping, high concept pageturner. As it is, the book is well enough written and constructed, but never quite has the depth it requires to go from a decent book to a spectacular one.
The third Alexei Korolev novel from Ryan brings us back into the paranoid world of Stalinist Russia, as Korolev's estranged son travels to stay with his father for a while and winds up as a pawn used against his father by mysterious forces deep within the Government.
Ryan's period detail, as ever, is spot on, and his clean, easy prose allows us to slip with ease into a world that can seem alien, not just in names and customs, but in terms of political stability and general paranoia. This particular era of Russian history is ripe for tales of conspiracy and double crosses, and Ryan is eager to mine his setting for all its worth. The result is a distinctive feel that really does engulf the reader.
There's a clever and bruising plot beneath the lean prose, and Ryan's skill is in simply and easily establishing his world before allowing the reader to get carried away with the constantly moving plot. By the time Korolev realises the depth of his siuation, we, the readers, are right alongside him.
For my money, Ryan is far better than his contemporary, Tom Rob Smith, and brings to mind something of Martin Cruz Smith with just a touch of early Robert Harris in this increasingly intriguing series. With such a rich backdrop and just the right touch of moral ambiguity, Ryan's Korolev series is worth seeking out.