By Paul Burke

Three-Fifths by John Vercher

One of the crime novels of the year, a poignant and intelligent exploration of racism, violence and identity. Three-Fifths is as strong a debut as I’ve read in years. Set in Homewood, Pittsburgh in 1995 it’s the story of Bobby, a bi-racial man who has passed for white all his life, his world is shattered by the reappearance of old school friend, Aaron. Brutalised by three years in prison Aaron is changed, he is now a muscle bound white supremacist, he scares Bobby. Bobby’s mother, Isabel, is an alcoholic and he’s estranged from his black father. His grandfather is a racist who’s never forgiven Isabel for loving a black man. While Aaron celebrates his release with Bobby trouble erupts, he unleashes a vicious attack on a young black man, leaving him fighting for his life in hospital. Bobby is forced to confront who he is and what he stands for. Aaron is out of control, their friendship is predicated on a lie, and Bobby can’t get away from that fateful night’s events. There’s no happy ending in this devastating tale of division, hatred and deprivation. The real tragedy is the story could have been set twenty-five years earlier or even, today because so little has changed. The perennial issue of racism makes this novel seem so relevant – #Black Lives Matter. Intelligent and compassionate – this is a heart breaking read.

5* personal/group read.
Pushkin Press, paperback, 1/10/20

Satan Takes The Helm by Calvin Clements

Originally published in 1952 this noir pulp is pacy and gripping. Satan Takes the Helm riffs on the lovers doing away with the husband theme of Therese Raquin, (Double Indemnity), but loads up on the cynicism and the sense of danger. This is a high seas adventure with a femme fatale so troubled she must have tortured bunnies as a child. As the freighters rust in the harbour the one thing San Francisco has in abundance is sailors looking for a birth, ready to take any job. The Eastern Trader is losing money, her captain, Ezra Sloan, is too old and infirm to manage anymore. His younger wife handles most of the ship’s affairs, she’s in town recruiting. When the vessel sails for Asia Joyce will be on board. Captain Martin Lewandowski steals a kiss and takes the job of skippering the Eastern Trader. It’s a crumbling wreck with a lazy crew and it’s losing money. Martin lays off men, cuts wages and generally shakes things up. He’s on for a share of the profits but they have to make some money first. Martin and Joyce Sloan are in cahoots, then they’re in bed cuckolding the old man. Joyce has an idea, about their future, Martin is malleable. Messy murder follows, there’s a storm to rival the best of them and a couple of decent twists as the plot unfolds. The ending has a poetic feel. Clements is a stylish writer, the setting is credible, the atmosphere tense but Joyce is the thing. Even in the long illustrious history of femme fatales they don’t come this depraved and deadly that often. A short, sharp, raw tale of passion, revenge, manipulation, double dealing and murder.

Personal read 4*
Black Gat Books, ISBN 9781951473143, paperback, 23/10/20

19th Christmas James Patterson and Maxine Peatro, (The Women’s Murder Club).

This fast paced thriller burns through the action. The set up seems familiar, kind of easy to figure out but that’s just to lure the reader in, things are not as they seem at all. Five days before Christmas, everyone wants to wind down, San Francisco is decked out in all its Christmas glory. Detective Lindsay Boxer and her family are soaking up the street atmosphere, prosecutor Yuki Castellani and partner, detective Jackson Brady, have shut off their phones for some down time. The peace won’t last long. December 21st – ex-con Julian Lambert gets a call from Mr. Logan, the job is on, more money than he ever dreamed of, time to play his part. Julian mingles with the shoppers, barging and bumping, making a scene, he picks out an elderly man, knocks him to the ground and steals his shopping bag. He runs, Lindsay and Jackson are off duty shopping when Julian comes their way. They arrest him on the spot, Julian is on probation, the value of the goods make this grand larceny, he’s going back inside again. Julian says he has information; a heist, a big job. All he can give them is a name, Mr Big aka Mr Logan, it’s slim but it chimes with other rumours. They get onto one of the gang, Chris Dietz, armed robber, hitman, psychopath – the arrest goes wrong, Dietz starts shooting. Now they know the threat is real but it’s getting complicated; the target could be the Mayor, the de Young Museum in the park or even the Mint. Plenty of twists and turns, the narrator Lindsay is likable, this is an efficient and engaging thriller that fans of the series will love.

Next in series, 20th Victim is out in Hardback now.

Personal read 4*
Arrow Books, paperback, ISBN 9781787461833, 1/10/20

Stone Cold Trouble Amer Anwar
The second Zaq and Jags novel

I like the way Anwar dives into the deep, dark seedier underside of London life establishing a grey mood but there’s a wry humour here too and a joyous sense of the multi-cultural flavour of London. It’s serious but not too serious, life can be bizarre, gruesome and/or funny, it’s all of that here. Zaq Khan, a Muslim, has been best friends with, Jags, a Sikh, since childhood. They live in Southall among the Asian community. Zaq works a day job as a delivery driver for building supplies Brar, he’s been inside, other than that he spends his time getting into all sorts of trouble he should be avoiding with Jags at his side. Jags’ Uncle Lucky is like an uncle to Zaq too. He wants to see the boys, he’s got a job for them. He went to a wedding, got into a poker school, did well…initially…then he lost…big – he ran out of money. So he bet auntie’s antique family heirloom necklace and lost it. Uncle Lucky is a businessman, he later tried to buy the necklace back – no dice. He wants Zaq and Jags to talk to the new owner, see if he can’t be persuaded. It’s not going to go well. Meanwhile Zaq gets a call in the middle of the night, his brother Tariq has been jumped, beaten badly, he’s in hospital. There’s a lot of tongue in cheek here, Zaq and Jags are irrepressible characters, it’s easy being on their side but they make life hard for themselves. Stone Cold Trouble is violent and dark but it has real heart. Anwar is a stylish writer, carving his own niche in British crime fiction. A very enjoyable read.

Personal read 4* group read 4*
Dialogue Books, paperback, ISBN 9780349700342, out now.