We've been huge fans of Ray Banks here at Crime Scene Scotland since The Big Blind (later rewritten as Dead Money) and so it was with excitement that we realised Inside Straight would return us to Banks's original stomping grounds; the grotty world of Casino culture in the North of England. Only this time we're seeing from the other side of the roulette tables as we enter the mind of Graham Ellis.
Ellis is a typically unreliable Banksian narrator. Initially charming in his own way (although a bit of a Doctor Who geek, something we can quite relate to here at CSS), you soon realise that he might not be telling even himself the whole truth, something that becomes particularly evidence when he's asked to take a new job with his long-term employer Sovereign Casinos, supervising a pit that's a loss in more ways than one.
Ellis is reliably, tough, good at his job. But there are signs that the stress is getting to him. And that maybe he's not quite the man he thinks he is. The reasons for his quick transfer and the fact that he quickly catches the attention of a local gangster should set warning bells off in the minds of all good-thinking noir fans.
But while Ellis's fall from grace seems assured, Banks's intention is to create what is as much a portrait of a man refusing to come to terms with his own decisions as much as it is a crime novel. Ellis is immature in his way, a man in constant denial. He talks a great talk, but when it comes down to it, how well does he stick to his own principles? Is he really rewriting his own past? Is he deliberately sabotaging his own chances at moving on? Early in the novel, he's given the perfect opportunity to escape, but his own doubts and insecurities work to constantly delay this one chance at happiness. You can't help but wonder if Ellis had acted earlier instead of merely re-acting, how different things would have been.
Banks's uniqueness in British crime is a focus on character that is second to none. His creations are occasionally loathsome, often flawed and always fascinating. They are faced with choices and temptations that test their own assumptions about themselves. In short, for Banks, character becomes plot: his cast are not subject to the whims of outside forces, they create their own trouble for themselves.
On top of this, Banks's novels are the few to show modern British society in a way that feels real and not forced. His world is one of supermarkets, dead casino chains, low-paid jobs, high-end dreams and dreary drudgery. There's a dark wit at work, too, and a sense of the absurd that runs through the narrative:
"wait, people don't get murdered in a Sainsbury's... it'd be like getting raped in a Waitrose - it just didn't happen!"
A great deal of the first half of the book is spent immersing the reader in the world of the pits. Its done subtly, filtered through Ellis's own view of himself as the greatest pit boss anyone could ask for.Its out introduction to the world of gambling and casinos, and allows us to see this world for what it is; as much a part of the drudgery of the modern world as anything else. The pride that Ellis takes in his job seems at odds with the reality of it.l
Inside Straight is a fantastic novel; as much about the gambling pits of the north as and the development of its protagonist as it is straight crime novel. Banks uses the inevitable heist and its fall out to to speak to deeper concerns than mere thrills, although he clearly understands the power of propulsive action as initiated by his characters. Inside Straight creates a portrait of Britain we don't often see, making it feel absolutely real, absolutely credible. And more, Banks creates complex characters who maybe don't learn to better themselves by the novel's end, but rather slowly reveal the truth about who they are to the reader in ways that may come as a shock, but in retrospect seem inevitable.
If you've ever read Banks before, you'll have grabbed Inside Straight before reaching the end of this review. If not, then you need download a copy now. And tell everyone you know to do the same. This is one book you shouldn't be keeping close to your chest,
Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 28/02/13