“ . . . crime fiction can often be a barometer of society in a way that more literary fiction doesn’t attempt. Of course, many elements are of necessity writ large in the genre, and things have to be exaggerated for dramatic purposes (such as body counts: as the Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir says, there are only 2.5 murders a year in Iceland – she is usually obliged to have more deaths in her books than in the real world). But the best writers have socio-political feelers out all the time, and these elements give their fiction a relevance and sonority that enriches the experience of reading them. Entertainment, yes, but with added value.” Barry Forshaw.
If you’re a crime fiction fan then it’s a fair bet you’ve read a No Exit Press novel or two. Among UK crime imprints, No Exit are the gold standard, their fiction output is distinctive and varied: from classic noir/hard-boiled titles to the best of new talent from Europe and North America. While crime is the No Exit staple, they also publish espionage, contemporary literature, collections/anthologies and factual books. From light (cosy) to noir, a bit of domestic drama and, recently, a contemporary western too. No Exit Press publish several popular authors, including Leigh Russell, Peter Murphy, Michael Farris Smith, John Lincoln (John Williams), Robert B. Parker (and his pen name reincarnations: Ace Atkins, Reed Farrel Coleman), William Giraldi, Bill Beverly, James Grady, Daniel Pembrey, Gary Philips, Juris Jurjevics and D.O. Dodd. Among the classic authors they have reprinted are Eric Ambler, Paul Cain, George Simenon, W. R. Burnett, Charles Willeford, Jonathan Latimer, Lawrence Block and Dashiell Hammett. That’s not to mention the authors who feature in this profile. Plus, No Exit Press and NB Magazine have got together to bring one lucky reader a fantastic prize: No less than twenty No Exit Press titles, one from each of the authors featured below. Click on the link at the end of the piece to enter the competition.
Personally, I’m grateful to No Exit Press for introducing me to several authors who’ve become firm favourites over the years: Jakob Arjouni, Mark Timlin, James Sallis, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Edward Bunker, James Carlos Blake and Dan Fesperman.
If you’re not a fan yet, let’s see if I can convince you with an array of reviews and interviews but first, this is Ion Mills, Publisher, on how it all began:
“I started No Exit Press in 1987 while I was selling books for a great group of Irish publishers. My sales territory was the whole of GB so I got to see plenty of bookshops up and down the country. My initial inspiration for the list came from knowing Mike Hart at Compendium Books who was a huge fan of a 30s crime novel called Fast One by Paul Cain. That book became the first title that No Exit published and to this day is still one of my favourites. How can you go wrong with a book that Raymond Chandler described as ‘some kind of high point in the ultra hardboiled manner!’
Our first books were part-financed on credit from Guernsey Press printers and luckily made a small profit which allowed us to pay our bills. Special mention must also go to Maxim Jakubowski and Murder One bookshop who opened soon after and were a great supporter of the list for over 20 years. Without wanting to become too wistful the eighties and nineties were a great time to sell crime fiction!”
Paul Burke’s picks for the best of the No Exit Press list:
Anthony Frewin’s London Blues (1997) ****. Tim Purdom swaps his humdrum life in the sticks for the bright lights of late 1950s London. The novel follows his life and career into the early sixties. Purdom isn’t well educated but he’s intelligent, he’s into jazz and dives into the cultural life of Bayswater and Soho. Living is hand to mouth, often mixing with petty criminals and his choices are driven by making ends meet. Purdom graduates from model to photographer. It’s a world of sleaze and pornography, private parties and public personalities (including Stephen Ward). Eventually Purdom realises that he can’t live a whole life this way. Poignant and insightful, this novel feels alive with the spirit of the time and place.
Mark Timlin’s A Good Year for the Roses (1988) ****. Nick Sharman sets up as a private eye when his police career crashes, but it’s dull. Things change when Mr Bright asks Nick to find his missing daughter. Patsy, 18, was visiting a friend in Brixton but never came home. Nick investigates with limited enthusiasm but before long he has to cross swords with his old pals at Brixton nick. The series this novel opened is categorised by snappy dialogue, a distinctive lone wolf detective, and a real feel for London’s streets. This is a violent, accomplished noir. Here’s the first paragraph:
“I opened for business on a chilly morning, in a cool August, in a cold and wet, forgettable summer. The headlines in the newspapers told me that there been a radiation leak at Sellafield Nuclear Re-Processing plant, Beirut had been bombed for the third successive day, a fourteen year old girl been raped and left for dead in Clapham, and England had lost in the final test at Edgbaston. It must have been someone’s birthday, or someone’s wedding anniversary. Somebody had cause to celebrate. But the Lord Mayor didn’t come down and cut a pink ribbon for me. I didn’t notice the earth move.”
And a little later:
“I should have asked George why I was his last chance. I should have listened to my instincts. I should have let him cry.”
Barry Forshaw features No Exit Press titles in his Pocket Guides to crime fiction so I’ve added a few of his comments to my reviews by way of illustrating his books. This on Mark Timlin: “[He]. . . imported the ethos of the American hard-boiled novel into a vividly realised south London setting . . .”
Carolyn Kirby’s The Conviction of Cora Burns (2019) *****. A stunningly original novel that explores the nature versus nurture debate in the context of a fascinating story set in nineteenth century Birmingham. Check out my full review and an interview with Carolyn Kirby.
Howard Linskey’s Ungentlemanly Warfare (2019) ****. Released on the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, this classic war/adventure story (drawn from the SOE archives) mixes contemporary style with good old-fashioned storytelling. You can read my full review here.
Jakob Arjouni’s Happy Birthday Turk *****, More Beer ****, One Man, One Murder (winner of the German Crime Fiction Prize) *****, Kismet *****, and Brother Kemal ****. Take a look at any of these titles, I love them all. Arjouni is one of my favourite Euro-noir authors. He began writing in the mid-1980s and has been an influence on many authors who came after. His private eye, Kemal Kayankaya, works in the Turkish community and is subject to casual and violent racism but he’s a lot smarter than the people who look down on him. Cynical and dark – superb social critique.
Happy Birthday Turk – when a Turkish worker is stabbed to death in Frankfurt’s red light district the police could not care less. Ahmed Hamul’s wife hires Kayankaya to investigate. Dealing with bad guys and bad attitudes, prejudice and violence, Kayankaya can’t be scared off. A fantastic beginning to a series and a real eye opener in terms of racism and the underbelly of German society.
Barry Forshaw: “. . . one of the most significant of German crime writers was a coruscating talent who died far too young.”
Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Language of Secrets (2018) *****. This is the third in a brilliant Canadian series; original, thought provoking, contemporary and as good as a police procedurals gets. Check out my full review.
I asked Clare Quinlivan, Publishing Manager at No Exit Press, what attracted her to The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan, the first novel in this series:
“This book was one of my first acquisitions and I’m so proud that it’s on the No Exit list. When I started reading the manuscript I couldn’t stop telling people about this remarkable, moving story that had everything you expected from a crime novel: clever premise, brilliant characterization and plenty of clues for the reader to piece together, but was also powerful and thought provoking in it’s subject matter. The Unquiet Dead is the start of a unique and, in my opinion, important series in which the author, Ausma Zehanat Khan, crafts complex and compelling crime investigations whilst simultaneously casting a light on human rights issues faced by minority communities. It is an absorbing, gripping and poignant story that I would highly recommend to anyone!”
The fourth novel in the series, No Place of Refuge, was published on 22nd August and you can rest assured that it will be reviewed on NB magazine but here’s a taster from the blurb:
The Syrian refugee crisis just became personal for Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty. NGO worker Audrey Clare, sister of Khattak’s childhood friend, is missing. In her wake, a French Interpol Agent and a young Syrian man are found dead at the Greek refugee camp where she worked. Khattak and Getty travel to Greece to trace Audrey’s last movements in a desperate attempt to find her. In doing so, they learn that her work in Greece had strayed well beyond the remit of her NGO…
Jason Starr’s Lights Out (2006) ****. From the blurb: Ryan and Jake were the two Major League-bound rivals on their high school baseball team. Until Ryan hurt his pitching arm and landed a $10 dollar an hour life as a house painter. Lucky Jake made it all the way, and he and his $10 million signing bonus are heading back for a homecoming weekend. But he’s got a nasty surprise in store: Ryan is involved in an intense, addictive relationship with Jake’s fiancé Christina, who now faces a choice between love in a Brooklyn tenement or a heartless marriage on Easy Street.
Lights Out is everything that is good about Starr, it demonstrates a deep psychological understanding, a fast pace and snappy gripping storytelling.
Edward Bunker’s Dog Eat Dog (1995) *****. If you get a chance check out Bunker’s story it’s fascinating (even if you only look at the Wiki-version). He’s an ex-con but also classy, a realistic and a clever crime writer – genuinely hard-boiled and very inventive. From the blurb: Dog Eat Dog is the story of three men fresh out of prison who now have the task of adapting to civilian life. The California three strikes law looms over them, but what the hell, they’re going to do it their way. Troy, an aloof mastermind, seeks an uncomplicated, clean life but cannot get away from his hatred for the system. Diesel is on the mob’s payroll and interest in his suburban home and nagging wife is waning. The loose cannon of the trio, Mad Dog, is possessed by true demons within, that lead him from one explosive situation to the next. One last big hit, one more jackpot, and they’ll be set for life. Troy constructs the perfect crime and they pull it off, but it is still not enough to prevent a denouement that has a grim and violent inevitability about it.
James Carlos Blake’s The Wolfe series. Country of the Bad Wolfes *****, The Rules of Wolfe *****, The House of Wolfe ****, and The Ways of the Wolfe *****. A family crime saga of exceptional quality, beautifully written, an insightful chronicle of the times and the borderlands.
The Ways of the Wolfe (2018) *****. The fourth novel in the Wolfe chronicles is classic Americana; a natural descendent of the Western that encompasses the best hard-boiled traditions. It’s also a family saga, an instalment in an epic tale of the twentieth century borderlands. The Wolfe family is a Texan clan, on the surface they run a legal firm, respected but also feared, the practice handed down from generation to generation. But each member of the family gets a choice when they become an adult. The Wolfes are also a crime family, ‘the shade trade’, deals in cross-border smuggling and drugs. The problem in The Ways of the Wolfe is that Alex, the main protagonist, gets himself into petty crime outside the family’s protection, with disastrous consequences: a job gone wrong, a jail break, a hunt for a traitor and plenty of revelations. Gritty and vital, interspersed with the back story of the characters and the Wolfe family history. Blake is one hell of a story teller, his prose is sharp, straightforward and gripping. The novel is never slow but the last hundred pages gather a pace. This is right up there with the best of American crime writing. A real winner.
Dan Fesperman’s Lie in the Dark (2018) *****. The first novel, originally published in 1999, by American journalist Fesperman. Informed, insightful, chillingly real – Fesperman presents a more complex and nuanced understanding of the Yugoslav conflict and aftermath in the form of a riveting thriller.
The blurb: Investigator Petric makes his living from the dead. Lately business has been slow, what with the siege around Sarajevo. Condoned killing has displaced the crime of passion; his services with the civil police as a homicide investigator have been less in demand. Unluckily one premeditated death does land on the detective’s desk. It is no abused lover or a distant sniper’s victim but a government official – the chief of the interior ministry’s police – shot dead at close range.
Barry Forshaw: [Dan Fesperman] “. . .is the real deal. . .”
William Boyle’s A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself (2018) ****. A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself shows the versatility of Boyle as a crime writer. His Brooklyn-set debut Gravesend was a solid chunk of neo-noir, in the best traditions of American hard-boiled fiction and New York smarts. The Lonely Witness followed in the same vein – taut, punchy and vivid. As you’d expect from a Brooklyn writer steeped in the local colour there was also a streak of dark humour to both novels, but this full-blown black comedy thriller is something else again, part homage, part parody. As with the best work in the satirical vein it draws on an in-depth understanding of twentieth century American culture for its raw material. The result is a highly entertaining adventure. The novel is loaded with Boyle’s customary faultless plotting, sassy streetwise dialogue and strong characters that you care about. However, this is a super charged read; irrepressible and unrestrained fun but with the occasional twist in the gut too, just to remind you the real world has hard edges. A heady mix of thriller and family saga with gangsters, an ex-porn star, a hard-boiled granny and a spiky teenager. The tone and occasional tongue in cheek style reminds me a little of Tonino Benacquista, particularly his novel, Badfellas. You will have a hard time finding a more fun crime novel any time soon.
Robert Olen Butler’s The Hot Country ****, The Star of Istanbul ****, The Empire of Night *****, and Paris in the Dark*****. Olen Butler is a class act and the winner of a Pulitzer prize. This crime series set in the early twentieth century is literary, rich in detail, insight and has a keen sense of humanity, good and bad. You can read my full review here.
Paul Vidich’s An Honorable Man **** and The Good Assassin ****. Hopefully the third novel in this spy series in on the way because this is a real insight into post-war America and its foreign relations. These are both classic intelligent spy stories.
The Good Assassin (2017). A crisply written spy novel. It gathers momentum as the intrigue ramps up; an intelligent thriller that matches the high standard set by the first Mueller outing, An Honorable Man’ Vidich is a strong new voice in historical spy fiction – he could become a must-read author for fans of the sub-genre. Maybe over time a match for Alan Furst or David Downing. The Good Assassin is a brilliant recreation of pre-Castro Cuba. From the shanty town streets, bars and cafes to the wild rebel-held countryside. From the bodies of young rebels hanging from lampposts (to discourage the insurgents) to the city as ‘playground’ for American tourists (the sex clubs and casinos). The corrupt politicians, the American company executives protecting their business interests, the gangsters looking for another Las Vegas and the spies working every side of the street. This is the Havana seen in the Godfather II and the bars are those frequented by Hemmingway. The Cuban regime is a dictatorship on the verge of collapse refusing to believe what is happening around them. The setting is pitch perfect. Vidich has mastered the politics of the time; the US attitude to Cuba, the failings that lead to totally misguided outcomes, the vested interests that see Cuba as a cash cow that they just can’t let go of but their actions are hastening it’s demise. Like all the best spy novels, nothing is black and white and there are so many shades of grey, so much ambiguity. It feels true to the time and place but the politics don’t get in the way of the plot or slow the momentum. Vidich makes serious points that demonstrates how the disastrous relationship between Cuba and the US began to develop.
Barry Forshaw: An Honorable Man “. . . is a striking debut. . .”
Luke McCallin’s The Man from Berlin *****, The Pale House ****, and The Ashes of Berlin *****. Again, I hope another novel in this series will come along soon. Set during WWII the investigations of Gregor Reinhardt are intelligent with a perfect setting.
The Man from Berlin (2016). The blurb: Sarajevo, 1943: Marija Vukic, a beautiful young filmmaker and socialite, and a German officer are brutally murdered. Assigned to the case is military intelligence officer Captain Gregor Reinhardt. Already haunted by his wartime actions and the mistakes he’s made off the battlefield, he soon finds that his investigation may be more than just a murder and that the late Yugoslav heroine may have been more treacherous than anyone knew. Reinhardt manoeuvres his way through a minefield of political, military, and personal agendas, as a trail of dead bodies leads him to a secret hidden within the ranks of the powerful – a secret they will do anything to keep.
John Larison’s Whiskey When We’re Dry (2019) ****. A revisionist, contemporary western; epic scope, fantastic storytelling and an original protagonist. Check out my review.
Here’s what Claire Watts, Production Director at No Exit, had to say about the book:
“One of my favourite’s is the recently published Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison. It is the story of an orphaned girl who is a skilled sharpshooter and has a zest to survive. She sets off to find her brother in the mid west of the 1880s and along the way unfolds a Robin Hood style story, so beautifully written, it is reminiscent of the clear female narration found in Milkman or Educated. And although the setting is very different in all three the power of the writing transcends the genre and explores gender fluidity, diversity and survival. Larison is a fantastic writer and we hope will have many more books to come.”
James Sallis’ Death Will Have Your Eyes *****, The Long-Legged Fly *****, Moth *****, Black Hornet ****, Eye of the Cricket ****, Bluebottle ****, Ghost of a Flea ***, Cypress Grove ****, Cripple Creek ****, Salt River ****, Drive ****, Driven ***, The Killer is Dying ***, Others of My Kind ****, Willnot ***, and Difficult Lives, Hitching Rides *****. If Sallis wrote it, any serious fan of American crime writing should have read it; in my opinion he’s that good. I really don’t think I need to say anymore!
Barry Forshaw: Drive is a “. . . lean and sinewy masterpiece. . .”
Tod Goldberg’s Gangster Nation (2017) ****. The sequel to Gangsterland (2015), the story of a Chicago mobster, the best hitman in the business until the day he screws up on a job. Nobody is going to forget that three FBI agents and a CI were killed, so Sal Cupertine gets a face-lift. After a spell of religious training he becomes Rabbi David Cohen in Las Vegas. Of course, this attempt to find the quiet life was futile – no one gets away from the mob that easily. Gangster Nation takes place a couple of years after Sal became Rabbi Cohen. Peaches Pocotillo wants to forge a new partnership with the mob, he does a favour for Chicago boss, Ronnie Cupertine, and he’s looking for Sal. Unaware of this in Las Vegas, Sal is keeping his head down. He just needs to make $1 million then he can disappear for good.
Gangster Nation is fast paced and totally engrossing. Goldberg does a nice line in dark humour. The novel has an eclectic mix of characters and a fresh take on some familiar themes; loyalty tested to the limits, corruption, drugs, gang rivalries, a dogged law man and some very mean mobsters – what’s not to like? A clever tale with a poetic ending.
Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source (originally published in 1984 and by No Exit in 1998, reissued by No Exit in 2018) ****. The inspiration for the film Point Break, although pleasingly this is a darker work of art. This is not a surfing novel per se, it gives you a feel for why it matters to the characters but don’t be put off, this is not niche fiction. Tapping the Source comes across as a straightforward revenge tale at the start but there is real depth and complexity here and a few plot twists keep you guessing. The novel is not only in the spirit of the classic noir, Chandler springs to mind, but there are elements of John D. McDonald and James Ellroy here too. Originally published in 1984, this is well worth a fresh look and certainly hasn’t dated. The novel is full of low key haunting scenes that hit the nail on the head. Always tense and intriguing.
This isn’t just the dark side of the American dream it’s the hippie bubble burst. This is the underbelly of the counter culture, the free spirit of the surfers, the Californian dream. It’s a coming of age, a poignant tale of growing up fast but there is more than meets the eye here. Nothing is resolved until the very end of the novel. Ike Tucker sets out to find out what happened to his missing sister. Will he be able to get out from under the influence of leader Hound once he’s in with the local gang? Will he be able to save Michelle, even though no one tried to save his sister? Fast and exciting. This is an impressive noir revelling in the darkness as a contrast to the California sunshine.
Bill Beverly’s Dodgers (2016). This is one of those crime novels that leaves you breathless, it’s a stunningly original debut – intelligent, accomplished and gripping. The story follows the odyssey of four African-American youths from LA as they travel across the mid-west to kill a witness in Wisconsin, a judge no less. The story is both a contrast, the white rural world that the boys feel like fish out of water in, and a comparison, poverty and lack of hope in a different kind of barren landscape, a crumbling America. East is fifteen, he lost his job ‘standing yard’ (lookout) at a drug house in the projects (a development known as the ‘boxes’) following a police raid. He’s lucky, drug dealer Fin is a relative so he gives him a second chance, a big job, a hit. East takes his bad-to-the-bone half-brother Ty and two friends Walter and Michael (all ages between thirteen and twenty). Things go wrong from the start but failure is not an option and East finds himself facing tough choices. East is a magnificent creation, he is intelligent and resourceful, in an alternative universe he’d be a ‘success’ in life. The novel has humour and lighter moments but the overall feel is dark – the tragic waste of youth.
It was a coup for No Exit Press to acquire this literary crime novel, published in 2016, it turned to be one of the big hits of the year and winner of several prizes: the British Book Award for Best Crime & Thriller Novel, the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger Award 2016, the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award 2016 and the LA Times Book Prize 2017.
Barry Forshaw’s Pocket Essentials Guides to Crime Fiction: Nordic Noir ****, Brit Noir ****, Euro Noir *****, American Noir ***½ and Historical Noir ****. These guides will introduce you to new authors and offer a fresh perspective on many you already know about. Forshaw’s insight is always interesting, and these works tread the fine line between in-depth encyclopaedia and brief guide brilliantly. I wouldn’t be without them. Forshaw’s Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide will be published in early November.
Verve Books, a 2018 offshoot of No Exit Press, has already produced some interesting titles and kicked off with an intelligent spy thriller: Merle Nygate’s The Righteous Spy ****. Maybe a feature on this publisher will appear here one day.
Forthcoming titles to look out for:
Leigh Russell’s Deathly Affair (December, 2019)
The blurb: When a homeless man is found strangled to death, Detective Sergeant Geraldine Steel is caught off guard by the cold-blooded nature of the crime. A second murder suggests the existence of a killer whose motive is as elusive as he is dangerous. In an investigation plagued by police scepticism, only Geraldine is relentless in her pursuit of the truth. As she is forced down unexpected avenues into the lives of three people caught in a toxic triangle of love and deceit, she discovers there is more to this case than any of them could have imagined.
Ted Lewis’s GBH & Plender (January, 2020)
The Blurb: GBH – George Fowler heads a lucrative criminal syndicate that specialises in illegal pornography but someone is undermining his empire from within, and Fowler becomes increasingly ruthless in his pursuit of the unknown traitor, trusting an even smaller set of advisors.
Plender – haunted by a humiliation from childhood, private investigator Brian Plender spots an old friend Peter knott one night with a girl way too young to be his wife. He decides to follow the pair and see what happens. What follows is an edge-of-your-seat trip into a nightmare story that manages to be both incredibly creepy and eerily profound.
James Sallis’ Sarah Jane (October, 2019)
The blurb: Sarah Jane Pullman is a good cop with a complicated past. From her small town chicken-farming roots through her runaway adolescence, court ordered Army stint, ill-advised marriage and years slinging scrambled eggs over greasy spoon griddles, Sarah Jane unfolds her life story, a parable about memory, atonement, and finding shape in chaos. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she finds herself named the de facto sheriff of a rural town, investigating the mysterious disappearance of the sheriff whose shoes she’s filling and the even more mysterious realities of the life he was hiding from his own colleagues and closest friends.
Ausma Zehanat Khan’s A Deadly Divide (January, 2020)
No details yet, sorry!
Barry Forshaw’s Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide (Early November, 2019)
The blurb: There are few contemporary crime fiction guides that cover everything from the golden age to current bestselling writers from America, Britain and all across the world, but the award-winning Barry Forshaw, one of the UK’s leading experts in the field, has provided a truly comprehensive survey with definitive coverage in this expanded new edition of the much admired Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. Every major writer is included, along with many other more esoteric choices. Focusing on a key book (or books) by each writer, and with essays on key crime genres, Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide (with a foreword by Ian Rankin) is designed to be both a crime fan’s shopping list and a pithy, opinionated but unstuffy reference tool and history. Most judgements are generous (though not uncritical), and there is a host of entertaining, informed entries on related films and TV.
With his new encyclopaedia of crime coming soon, here’s Forshaw’s thoughts on the pleasure of reading as a reviewer/expert:
“ . . . it’s a subject I’ve mused upon repeatedly. Can I really just enjoy a new crime thriller novel if I were tackling it as an ordinary reader, without bringing my critical faculties to bear – or thinking about the possible review I might be writing for The Guardian or the Financial Times? The answer is probably ‘yes’ to the former question – a really strikingly written novel will draw you inexorably into its world, in immersive fashion. But the corollary for me is that I will be thinking how best to talk about how the author manages their effects. And that syndrome kicks in – whether I want it to or not – even when I’m reading a book that I don’t have to review! It’s an occupational hazard, I suppose.”
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