Crime publishers really came up trumps this month, there are six books here but I could easily have recommended ten more. These are all excellent reads, all very different and all offering something more than just good storytelling. I promise you there will be something here to suit your taste. From an ultra-noir set to shock to a US rural noir that’s destined to make many a critics best of the year, via a ground breaking French re-issue, an English comédie humaine, an intelligent true crime anthology and a feminist gothic tale.

Dead Girl Blues Lawrence Block                                        

One for the hard core Noirists out there. Be warned this novel is both violent and challenging but I also believe it’s dynamic and original and one of the most exhilarating reads of the year so far. Dead Girl Blues just goes to prove that Block, a crime fiction legend now in his eighties, is not resting on his laurels, the creative juices are flowing just fine. This is a psychological portrait of a killer that is shocking and provocative in the way Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me or Suzanne Moore’s In the Cut were in their day. Developed from a short story it’s gripping and tense and relevant. Sad to say Block felt the need to self publish as this may just be a little too rich for the blood of mainstream publishers but at least it’s out there and available online. This really is one not to miss if you’re tastes run to fiction about the bleakest darkest recesses of the human mind. The novel opens as if the narrator is about to tell a joke…

‘A man walks into a bar…’

Only this bar is more a roadhouse, on the outskirts of Bakersfield, Ca. Of course, there’s country & western on the juke box, the women have big hair, the guys wear Stetsons. The narrator tells us that he works at the Sunoco petrol station up the road, or at least he did, time to move on. He’s
still wearing the uniform he acquired from the last guy who had the job, Buddy. So people call him that because of the nametag on his chest. He spots the woman he wants; lonely, sad looking, already well on her way to being drunk, he joins her, they drink some more. They spar verbally, before long they’re in the car park, hands all over each other. He knows she’d go for it here but he tells her to get in the car – to find somewhere quiet. Eventually he turns off the highway but now she’s asleep, when she comes round the mood is dead, she wants to know what’s going on. He couldn’t be more happy, she wants to put up a fight. He likes that, he hits her – as her lights go out his come on. He throws her body in the woods, leaves her there. The evidence, the clothes, handbag, his own stained overalls in the trunk, he drives out of state. By the time they find out who she is, he’s settling into a new life, this time he puts down roots. He’s lucky Bobby Kennedy gets shot the following week, everyone’s attention is elsewhere.

Welcome to the world of a sexual killer, a psychopath, for the next few decades readers get to see how he thinks, how he acts: Will he kill again? Will the law catch up to him? The tension is nail biting.

‘A man walks into a bar…’ A girl dies.

It’s an uncomfortable experience being inside the head of a killer but it’s compulsive too. Like a car crash you just can’t look away from. The scene setting is superb and the dialogue sharp, the storytelling spare and taut. This is much more scary than a horror story because it feels real.

Lawrence Block Productions, Paperback, ISBN 9781951393649, July 2020
Personal read 5*, I can’t imagine many groups wanting to get to grips with this novel, sadly.

 

The Sleeping Car Murders by Sébastien Japrisot       

What was ground breaking in the sixties might seem pretty tame and, even, familiar now because Japrisot paved a path that others were eager to follow. Even though The Sleeping Car Murders won’t appear revolutionary to the modern reader this is still an enjoyable and engaging murder mystery. Japrisot was an original and this is the first of his novels reshaping noir as a European art form. Of course, most people will associate noir with 1940s Hollywood but it was European refugee filmmakers who brought that ethos to America first. By the 1950s American noir and hardboiled was hitting continental bookshops and was embraced with a passion In France. Japrisot, like Boris Vian, translated these English language novels for the Gallic audience. However, when Japrisot was invited to write a crime thriller of his own he wasn’t going to mimic or write in the style of his favourite US authors. Japrisot wanted to shake things up, add a distinctly French flair and stamp his own character on the genre. His debut crime novel The Sleeping Car Murders, published in 1962, did just that.

7.50am on a cold Saturday in October. The Marseilles train arrives at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. The night time passengers disembarked, bar one. There’s a half hour turn around time so the man charged with checking the carriages delays his inspection in order to get himself a warming coffee. When he finally makes his rounds the passengers have dispersed to their onward destinations. He finds a body in a second class compartment, a woman sprawled across her berth, she’s been strangled. The railway worker locks the compartment for the police. Detective Pierre Grazziano cops the case, even though it’s the weekend and there are other things a family man should be doing. Grazzi, as he is known to everyone except his boss, superintendent Tarquin, who calls him Holmes, sets the investigation in motion. The train left Marseilles at 10.30 the previous night, there were four stops en route. The woman is identified as Georgette Thomas, thirty, a cosmetics demonstrator/saleswoman who lived in Paris and had been in Marseille for the past three days on business. The police begin to trace the other passengers in Georgette’s compartment, hoping they will respond to her story in the paper. Sure enough René Cabourg reads of the death and contacts Grazzi to tell him he was in the compartment but didn’t see anything unusual. The two men agree to a formal interview the next morning. When Cabourg doesn’t show up it seems of little consequence as Grazzi has spoken to him and is occupied with tracing the other passengers but the police haven’t understood the nature of the crime or the killer. Cobourg was murdered soon after talking to Grazzi, the second victim, shot in his apartment. Grazzi is focusing on Georgette’s murder, the problem is Georgette Thomas doesn’t appear to have an enemy in the world, nor a sour relationship to speak of – the crime appears to be motiveless. The police work is methodical, but the vital jigsaw pieces are missing, there’s something more organised, more cold and reasoned at work than Grazzi can see and the murderer is not finished yet.

This novel is often referred to in English as a cult classic but Japrisot was a very popular French novelist and winner of several literary prizes including, in my opinion, the sexiest in the crime fiction world; the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for Trap for Cinderella (1963). As a title The Sleeping Car Murders is a better interpretation of the original French title, Compartment Tueurs, but it was first published in English as The 10.30 From Marseilles in 1964. Sebastien Japrisot is a anagram of the authors real name, Jean Baptiste Rossi, he had already published a couple of successful contemporary novels under his own name, including Les Mal-partis. The Sleeping Car Murders broke a mould, Japrisot’s first thought was to take the linear story, disassemble it and reconstruct it differently, he wanted to see how well the themes and the structure of the tale stood up to being rearranged – less obvious and more revealing. He makes the reader see things from angles that might not have occurred with a more straightforward telling. He was keen to draw out the psychological depth of the story.

Japrisot has a good sense of time and place and everything happens over the course of a few days so it’s very tense. The twists are clever as the story explores how a policeman can solve an apparently motiveless, clueless crime. But of course there is a reason for this crime, it just isn’t apparent in the crime itself. There are a couple of minor plot devises that wouldn’t fly today, for example, the long distance phone call that ties up some details is probably quite realistic but unexciting, (sixties cops wouldn’t have been able to flit between Paris and Marseille as they might do now). Japrisot is a master of noir, and one of the originators of the absurd streak that runs through the French crime novel. An off-kilter view of the world that somehow manages to bring reality into sharper focus. Translated by Francis Price.

Gallic Books, paperback, ISBN 9781910477937, 6/8/20
Personal read 4*, group 3½*

Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver       

This novel subtly touches on some big questions while revelling in mayhem and darkly comic happenings. Why are we the way we are? Why is there so much bitterness and antagonism in society when it’s in all our interests to get on? Readers are confronted with a tale that reflects on our worse not our better angels. Carver’s writing is something unique, and it’s changing, what it will become I don’t know, it will be hard to define as a genre, whatever, it’s dead exciting to read. The Good Samaritan was an accomplished noir, deliciously subversive but still recognisable in form, whereas Nothing Important Happened Today began straying towards Carver’s own little twilight zone, another fascinating read that actually felt like it was a gateway, a step change. Hinton Hollow Death Trap is definitely the other side of the gate, the style and Storytelling are more refined and targeted to Carver’s own niche. This is intelligent while playful; Carver likes to play, if I make it sounds complex it reads very lightly.

Carver writes with an impious heart, he’s a contrarian who likes to make mischief on the page. What are rules for if not to be broken? There’s the one that says humans are okay but don’t kill animals the readers will hate you. Carver’s first thought, (he’s a vegan by the way) – that’s an animal slaughter in the book then. It’s an irreverent, wicked, provocative way of exploring themes and, of course, wisely, unrepentant. It makes for thrilling reading. Where does it come from? I’m not even sure that Carver is a fan of crime fiction and that may account for his refreshing approach. It sounds challenging, maybe it is, but you can be sure the author is having a ball and so should the reader. So to Hinton Hollow:

Luckily for us, unluckily for him, DS Pace manages to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…again. Pace chose Hinton Hollow for the quiet life, if you’re familiar with Nothing Important Happened Today, which opened with a group of people, strangers to each other, committing suicide by simultaneously jumping from Chelsea Bridge, you’ll know why he needed the rest. Pace wants a change of pace but Evil has no intention of letting him off the hook.

Hinton Hollow population 5120, a quiet place with its own way of life;

‘The summer had seemed to stretch on for an extra month, keeping the skies light and the air warm… there is still a bakery on the high street, though the bread is much cheaper in the supermarkets of neighbouring towns, and it lasts longer. And there’s one pub that everybody goes to – The Arboreal – and Fourbears independent bookshop, which refuses to go out of business.

Hinton hollow was safe.’

A place surely destined to remain off the radar, unspoilt, uninteresting to the world until… Evil came to town. Originally intending to pass through, Evil takes a mini-break because the chance to mess with DS Pace is too good to resist. Just five days and the place will never be the same again. Evil brings out the worst in people, infecting them, accentuating the negative. Little Henry Wallace has been put on a train by his frightened mother, she knows something is coming and she wants her boy to be safe. The eight year old boy is more than one hundred miles from home before anyone challenges him about his solo trip. A lanyard hung around his neck simply asks that he be kept safe for seven days. Henry is under instruction not to tell where he comes from for one week. Then it’ll all be over.

Evil politely warns readers that venturing beyond page 19 will mean witnessing the destruction of Hinton Hollow and Sergeant Pace. Evil knows the value of sowing dissention, spreading mistrust, creating discord, in a previous incarnation he was Iago, master of the poison whisper. Population 5119 and falling.

Carver drops comparisons from life into the fiction to illustrate points, and alternative realities add poignancy:

‘If detective pace had not…Liv Dunham would have become Liv Tambor.’

Hinton Hollow Death Trap is a riot but it has a very serious message about the absurdity and cruelty of life. Carver is more than a little perplexed by humanity’s lack of humanity and how we don’t act in our own best interests. Why is Evil always so attractive?

Orenda Books, paperback, ISBN 9781913193300, 6/8/20.
Personal 4* group 5*

The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns ed. Mitzi Szereto

There’s the usual sensationalism in the marketing for this true crime anthology that belies just how well written and thoughtful it is. We are informed that small towns are more violent than big cities, (FBI stats.), so watch out for the depravity and darkness behind the idyllic facade of the tight knit community with its country fairs and unlocked doors. Duly noted, let’s move on. This is a well curated and considered collection comprising some well written essays/stories that explore the origins of each crime; the investigation, subsequent trial – when the culprit was caught, and the traumatic effect on the community – the aftermath. This is Mitzi Szereto’s second collection for a series that will run, the first dealt with serial killers. The assemblage of authors is impressive from true crime writers with a reputation in the field to fiction writers and academics. Eschewing the sensational, the gruesome nature to the events here speak for themselves; these stories get to the human cost behind the terrible events that suddenly vault a small town into the public gaze. Here’s are a few examples of the contents:

Snowtown by Anthony Ferguson. 1999 – Eight bodies are discovered in a disused bank in Snowtown, southern Australia, population 467. In total twelve victims come to light and four perpetrators are arrested. The victims are innocent men but a complex history leads to some bizarre justifications and reasoning from the killers. In the immediate wake of the trial a macabre tourism developed but in the long term the locals were left to deal with this happening on their doorstep. You might wonder if the police were competent, these criminals preserved the bodies rather than dissolve them by using the wrong acid, Ferguson touches on that.

A Tragedy in Posrja: When ‘People’s Justice’ Goes Wrong by Tom Larsen. In a small fishing village in Ecuador in 2018 three people are lynched by an angry mob. They’ve been arrested for robbery but by the time social media has intervened they are suspected of a more heinous crime and subjected to summary justice. The case reveals the dangers of speculation and social media, and local mistrust of the law and government, among other things.

About a Boy by C L Raven. 1921, Abertillery, South Wales. Two young girls are raped and killed by a local boy. He’s given an alibi for the first crime, no one believes he could be guilty of such terrible acts. Harold Jones was eventually convicted but was he responsible for a notorious string of murders in London after his release and after WWII?

The Summer of the Fox by Mark Fryers deals with a violent crime spree around Leighton Buzzard, England, in 1984. The Black Hand and Glass Eye of Earlimart: A Killer’s Perspective by Christian Cipollini let’s the murderer explain his view of what happened when he killed another man. La Belle Elvira: A Murder in the Tuscan Hills by Dierdre Pirro deals with the murder of Elvira Orlandini, there was a suspect and a trial but the crime remains unsolved. Nameless in Van Diemens’ Land deals with a Tasmanian shooting spree.

There’s a variety of stories here that do more than describe gruesome murders, they set them in context and offer a reasoned, cold eye perspective of what underpins a terrible crime. If you like true crime with a serious edge this collection seems ideal, even though there’s no sensationalism it might be best to avoid reading at bed time if you’re troubled by nightmares.

Mango Publishing, ISBN 9781642502800, paperback, 14th August.
Personal 3.5*, group 4*.

 

The Quickening Rhiannon Ward

Sarah Ward, known for her contemporary DC Childs crime novels has adopted the pseudonym Rhiannon Ward for her foray into historical mystery writing. The Quickening is a slow burn, plenty of time to get to know the characters and absorb the darkening atmosphere that infuses the story. Set mainly in 1925 when photographer Louise Drew accepts a commission to catalogue the contents of Clewer Hall for an upcoming auction the story revolves around strange happening and a notorious séance held at the house in the presence Arthur Conan Doyle nearly thirty years before in 1896.

Its a cold January morning in 1925 when Louisa Drew gets a summons for an urgent commission, Louisa is to photograph the contents of a country house in Sussex, the Clewer family are selling up and moving to India. They specifically requested Louisa but she doesn’t believe she knows either Colonel Felix Clewer or his wife Helene. Leaving a message for her husband with her mother-in-law, Dorothy, Louisa takes the train to Brighton that afternoon. Clewer Hall has a dubious reputation, Louisa is urged to take her photos and get back as soon as possible:

‘As the trains sped through the Sussex countryside, my nausea was replaced by a knot of apprehension as I tried to make sense of Leo’s and my mother-in-law’s reaction to Clewer Hall.’

The residents of the house are welcoming and open, the harm on the place is not evident yet. Louisa discovers that Ada Watkins, (charlatan or spiritual guru?), who conducted the notorious 1896 séance, is also a house guest. The Clewer’s intend to recreate the séance with as many of the original guests as are still alive before they leave England for good. Everyone skirts the issue of what happened that night three decades before but Louisa’s curious is aroused because it was clearly the cause of some distress and has left it’s mark on the family ever since. As Louisa sets about the task of photographing the house contents strange things begin to happen, items go missing only to reappear and she keeps seeing a small child around the house only to be told there are no children on the estate. Is there a ghostly presence, an evil in the house? Events take a darker turn as Louisa realises that the family secrets threaten her too.

The novel is very good at conjuring up time and place, Ward has mastered an authentic language and setting and is insightful on the important shifts in society and the obsessions of life; the juxtaposition between the modern age and the Victorian era and the divisions between the secular and spiritual worlds come into focus. Feminism, superstition, the devastation of war and the Spanish flu are themes as is grief. Louisa Drew is her own woman but she is still bound by many of the conventions of the time and she is struggling with her own deep seated grief after losing a previous husband and two children. When she is called to Clewer Hall she is trying to rediscover herself and the spirit that has taken a battering over the years. Unconventionally, she is a working photographer but is also seven months pregnant. This is a novel alive with the spirit of the age but also an intelligent look at issues that still exercise us today and, most of all, Louisa is a fantastic and memorable character.

Trapeze, hardback, ISBN 9781409192176, 20/8/20
Personal read 4*, group 4½*

 

Blacktop Wasteland by S A Cosby

Cosby recently told the LA Review of Books that ‘conflict drives narrative’ and there’s plenty of that in this stunning and thought provoking novel. This story rips through the pages with a rare energy. Blacktop Wasteland is very much Beauregard’s story but it explores the plight of a generation of rural people disenfranchised and disconnected from the American dream – these characters are falling behind their urban counterparts. This is a tale of poverty and racism but also a recognition of commonality, the things that unite us, the shared experience, that we don’t recognise readily. These aren’t bad people but they are people lacking in opportunity and that’s all they want really, a chance to have a better life. A chance to make choices, to prove themselves instead of being trapped, it’s about having hope for the future. Rural noir is generally a white preserve but Cosby busts that wide open here in this evocation of rural poverty that points up the added difficulties of the black experience, (racism).

Beauregard misses his dead father, there’s a whole history there we learn as the novel progresses, and he has the responsibility of providing care for his mother, not to mention his own young family and a business to run. At every turn he hits a brick wall, one step forward, two steps back. Eventually, Beauregard looks to crime for the quick fix. When he falls into the screwed up world of Ronnie Sessions, even though life has been no picnic to date, things spiral into a nightmare. This is top notch noir, it couldn’t be more relevant given the Black Lives Matter movement and the not so slow death of rural communities. Blacktop Wasteland is violent and shocking but tragically plausible and realistic. The novel is compassionate; ultimately, although it all goes wrong, Beauregard is just trying to survive, to protect his family and give them a chance in life. Fans of Attica Locke will love Cosby, this novel also reminds me of Gary Philips. Cosby gets that division between real history and the Confederate version that puts a jaundiced interpretation on the past.

Shepherd’s Corner, Virginia, 2012. Beauregard ‘Bug’ Montage eyes the cars, motors from the America age of muscle, racers. He’s got $1,000 in his pocket but he needs another $800 for the rent. He’s got a young family, a car mechanics business to run and it’s all under threat with the way the economy is. He needs a mark – Warren Crocker, he’s got the mouth, he’s got the car and he’s the only one Beauregard can goad into a big enough bet. The question is does have the guts to put it all on the line like Beauregard will? The two men race, Crocker’s Oldsmobile Cutlass isn’t fine tuned, it’s a beast but Beauregard wants this win more. Kia and the children are depending on him. Race over Crocker calls Beauregard a cheat, there’s a fight brewing. Then the cops roll up, tonight nobody gets arrested but all the money gets confiscated, a lesson to be learned. Beauregard doesn’t argue with white men pushing guns in his face, he knows this is a set up, fake cops, but still the rent money is gone.

Next day the nursing home rings, his mother’s Medicaid is invalid, the home wants $48,360 or they’ll throw her out next week, (with dignity, of course). That’s when Ronnie Sessions steps back into Beauregard’s life. A heist, enough money to pay the rent, his mother’s bills and be set in life. Beauregard doesn’t trust Ronnie, and they are soon in hot water with some nasty gangsters, cross and double cross follow. Beauregard can’t afford to lose again. This is a fight for survival and he will go all the way. The action is blistering, the characters rounded and the emotional core of the novel is spot on.

Headline, hardback, ISBN 9781472273710, 4/8/20
Personal read 5*, group 5*