An engrossing 'straight-up' crime thriller from a master wordsmith
It's been a while since I wrote a book review, and 'Mr Mercedes' by Stephen King is a worthy way to resume! The novel is King's venture into straight crime thrillers, the first of a trilogy. Fans of his horror and supernatural titles won't find their familiar fare here. No clowns, no haunted hotels, no Boo'ya Moon. Instead 'Mr Mercedes' recounts the good versus evil battle of Bill Hodges, a retired police officer, and Brady Hartsfield, a computer genius with a bad Oedipal complex and an even worse loathing of humanity. The book begins with a bang, recounting the senseless slaying of eight people by Brady Hartsfield, committed by ploughing a stolen Mercedes into a crowd. Years later, retired detective Bill Hodges's failure to capture the Mercedes Killer haunts him as he drifts through his days on a diet of junk food and daytime television. Then he receives a taunting letter from Mr Mercedes, an attempt to goad him into suicide. Instead, it induces the opposite effect, Hodges is spurred into action, committed to capturing the killer before he strikes again. Let the battle commence....
The novel has more twists and turns than a maze, never failing to thrill. Twice in the book (I'll not say more as I don't want to give plot spoilers) the events had me yelling, 'Oh my God!' at the pages. The way King enables Hartsfield to stalk Hodges without the latter realising is creepy beyond belief. Novelists are often advised to torture their characters to excite readers. In 'Mr Mercedes', Stephen King doesn't hesitate to dispatch the modern day equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition to persecute his players. Speaking of whom, 'Mr Mercedes' introduces a trio of characters that continue through the trilogy. First Bill Hodges, the man who rediscovers his zest for life through hunting Brady Hartsfield. Jerome Robinson, the computer-savvy student, a foil for Hodges's technical ineptitude. Finally, there's Holly Gibney, a seemingly minor character whose demons seem destined to hinder Hodges, not help him. The lesser characters are equally compelling. Deborah Hartsfield, Brady's alcoholic mother, inspires empathy as we learn the reason for her drinking. At the same time, her unorthodox relationship with her disturbed son won't win her a 'Mother of the Year' award. Aunt Charlotte is a master study of a self-absorbed whiner engorged with entitlement issues. The only character I disliked (although she's one of the 'good guys') is Janelle Patterson. Her condescending attitude towards Hodges warrants a kick up the backside. She dispenses sexual favours his way as though rewarding a well-trained dog with a ham bone. Yuk.
A dash of humour, and less is not always more...
Unlike many straight-up crime thrillers, the novel is laced with humour. Take our introduction to Bill Hodges. He's at a point in his life when blowing his brains out holds increasing appeal. We witness his ennui via the daytime television shows with which he self-medicates. King's descriptions of a trashy reality TV programme are hilarious, yet provide a not-so-subtle commentary on modern life. His books have often been criticised for being long-winded. By comparison to some of his work ('Under the Dome', 'The Stand', etc.), 'Mr Mercedes', at 405 pages, is a short read. Yet it still contains much that critics might say could be axed without interfering with the plot. Take the description of the reality TV show. The fighting between Knockout Bods One and Two and their shared lover doesn't add to the action, reveals nothing about the book's characters. Yet somehow it works. Those passages inject humour, a counterpoint to the awfulness of Hodges's life post-retirement.
Yes, King is prone to lengthy prose, some of which doesn't add to his books. With a master wordsmith like him, though, it doesn't detract either. The man is probably capable of rewriting the phone book and making it thrilling. His wizardry with words ensures that, no matter what tangent he zooms off on, it'll be entertaining.
'Mr Mercedes' is the first in a trilogy, and the second and third books, 'Finders Keepers' and 'End of Watch', have already been published. Our heroic trio of Hodges, Robinson and Gibney continue their crime-fighting spree, this time tackling an obsessive fan whose preoccupation with a famous writer goes too far. Wait - haven't we been there before? Annie Wilkes in 'Misery'? King seems to enjoy examining the trials and tribulations of a novelist ('Misery', 'Lisey's Story', 'Bag of Bones', etc.). 'Finders Keepers', however, in King's capable hands, spins an original twist on a familiar theme. And 'End of Watch' delves into what appears to be a murder-suicide. Except that matters aren't, of course, what they seem...
Back to 'Mr Mercedes'. I devoured this book, loving the ride on which King takes the reader. The only part that didn't gel for me was the final scene, which I thought stretched credibility too far. On the other hand, in its own way it's oddly humorous. Given how I loved the rest of the book, it's a minor issue. And now, thanks to Messrs King and Mercedes, I know what a crush freak is. Believe me, if I could erase that particular piece of knowledge from my brain, I would!
Have you read 'Mr Mercedes'?
I hope you enjoyed this book review! Have you read 'Mr Mercedes'? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Thoughts, opinions? Leave a comment and let me know!
The Jack Reacher series - classy, page-turning thrillers
I've been a fan of Lee Child's Jack Reacher titles from the first one I read. Hats off to Mr Child (real name Jim Grant), who has mastered writing bestselling American thrillers, despite being British. He pens classy novels with a twist and a turn in every chapter, books that make me eager to turn to the next page. This week I'll be reviewing his novel 'Personal', published in 2014.
First, however, a little about the Reacher series in general. Jack Reacher is an iconic character; tall, tough, an expert fighter, he wanders his home country of America with only a toothbrush and wallet in his pocket. He even spurns carrying a change of clothes, preferring to buy fresh attire as and when he needs it. He has no home, no car, no friends, no significant other, just a desire to live life off the grid and on his own terms. Reacher explores his homeland without so much as a holdall, claiming that if he were to allow possessions into his life, it would open the door to more... and more... and more. Which might lead to acquiring a house for all those possessions, and being settled is exactly what Reacher seeks to avoid.
The girls, the gadgets, the witty one-liners....
In terms of plot, the Reacher books are virtually identical. The novels are, as Child has remarked, essentially revenge stories – somebody does something bad, and Reacher exacts retribution. The plotline and location varies from title to title, but certain elements stay the same. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and I suspect Child employs this strategy for commercial reasons. Why? Because such tactics work. Take the James Bond movies. No matter who the latest Bond actor is, cinema goers know exactly what they'll get for their money. The girls, the gadgets, the witty one-liners... the basic plotline may vary, but the action and adventure remain constant. Guaranteed entertainment. It's no different with Lee Child's novels.
In many ways, I see similarities between James Bond and Jack Reacher. Reacher's as tough as Bond, if not more so. A towering six feet five inches of fighting prowess, he tends to tackle the bad guys in multiples, often taking on five or six men at once and leaving them dead or hospital cases. All the while offloading witty wisecracks - our man's verbally every bit as cool as James Bond. We all love Bond's laconic one-liners, but Reacher can come out with some gems of his own as he bats his ripostes across the conversational table. Take this example of his dry humour:
'I have no desire to go to Buckingham Palace anyway.'
'Wouldn't you like to meet the Queen?'
'Not really. She's just a person. We're all equal. Has she expressed any interest in meeting me?'
Entertainment, pure and simple
In addition, similar to Bond, Reacher always hooks up with a beautiful, beguiling female; Child's subplots are often concerned with the sexual tension that develops between the two. The epitome of machismo, Reacher is nevertheless portrayed as respectful towards women, despite his 'love 'em and leave 'em' attitude. Not that the latter matters. His cohorts aren't, on the whole, looking for a white picket fence; they're equally happy to enjoy some uncomplicated pleasure. Entertainment, pure and simple, for Jack, his women, and the reader.
Let's turn now to gadgets. Our hero has an encyclopaedic knowledge of weaponry, although he's a dinosaur when it comes to technology. Despite lacking Bond's fancy gizmos, Reacher employs any guns he comes across to great effect. He knows all about ballistics and firing strategies, facts ground hard into him during his years as a military policeman, and he uses his knowledge well, explaining it to the reader in a way that's never dull. And he's also a mean opponent with his fists and feet. You wouldn't want to piss off this guy, believe me.
What about his morality? Like Bond, Jack has no compunction about killing another human should the circumstances warrant it. I've read criticism of Lee Child for this, along the lines of how a cold-blooded murderer can't be a hero. I believe that's over-thinking the issue. Child's books are written to entertain, and I doubt anyone would level the same comment at James Bond, simply because he holds a licence to kill and Reacher doesn't. We're not meant to go all moralistic about Child's protagonist. Besides, Reacher has no trouble justifying his actions, either to himself or to others. Take this excerpt from 'Personal', in which he explains his attitude to killing one of the guys sent to apprehend him: 'He had a choice... he could have spent his days helping old ladies across the street. He could have volunteered in the library. I expect they have a library here. He could have raised funds for Africa, or wherever they need funds these days. He could have done a whole lot of good things. But he didn't. He chose not to. He chose to spend his days extorting money and hurting people. Then finally he opened the wrong door, and what came out at him was his problem, not mine. Plus he was useless. A waste of good food. Too stupid to live.'
'The stakes have never been higher...because this time, it's personal.'
On to the book review itself. Here's what Amazon says: 'Jack Reacher walks alone. Once a go-to hard man in the US military police, now he’s a drifter of no fixed abode. But the army tracks him down. Because someone has taken a long-range shot at the French president. Only one man could have done it. And Reacher is the one man who can find him. This new heart stopping, nail biting book in Lee Child’s number-one bestselling series takes Reacher across the Atlantic to Paris – and then to London. The stakes have never been higher - because this time, it’s personal.'
Number 19 in the series is one of the most entertaining Reacher novels that I've read. Whether that's because I'm British and the book is largely set in the UK, I'm not sure. It's certainly interesting to experience Lee Child, a fellow Brit, exploring our way of life through the eyes of an American, and not always reverently, which adds to the fun. Reacher doesn't hesitate to crack amusing references to the Queen, the London transport system and our police force, amongst other things, and it's hard not to smile at some of the absurdities he reveals. The novel moves along at a frantic speed, with hooks at the end of each chapter that drag the reader, metaphorically breathless, towards the next. Lines like: 'I headed towards the sound of her voice, and stepped into a room, and came face to face with myself.' Or: 'He had a gun in his hand, yet another Browning High Power, and he was pointing it straight at my head.' Who could resist turning the page after such a cliff-hanger?
A riveting read and a quality thriller
Unusually for a Reacher novel, the relationship between our protagonist and his female sidekick has a different flavour to the other Lee Child titles I've read. Reacher is more interested in helping rookie CIA agent Casey Nice with her personal issues than rolling her into bed, perhaps because there's a large age gap between them. It's plain he's attracted to her, though. Take this excerpt: 'She knocked on my door, and I opened up and found her in a ponytail and a version of her Arkansas outfit. The same brown leather jacket, over a white T-shirt, with different jeans. Same colour, but lower cut. And all scraped and sanded and beat up. Distressed, I believed they called it, which to me meant upset, which just didn't compute. Was there a finer place to be, than where those jeans were?'
'Personal' is a riveting read in my opinion, a great example of the Jack Reacher series. My view isn't shared by many on Amazon, however; the book has attracted a fair number of one-star reviews, many complaining that the plot is tedious and dumbed-down, and that Lee Child has run out of juice with the Reacher character. I disagree, and as long as Reacher's capable of kicking the butts of multiple antagonists in a fight, I'll keep reading his adventures.
Enough from me - over to you!
What do you think? Have you read 'Personal'? Do you enjoy Lee Child's Reacher novels? Or do you think the character has grown stale with repetition? Do you consider that Tom Cruise, at 5' 7", was miscast as 6' 5" Reacher in the movie? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment and let me know!
Three stories woven into one
Nobody tells a story quite like Stephen King, who has rated 'Lisey's Story' (2006) his favourite novel that he's written. Before I discovered it on the library shelves, however, I'd not heard of it. No-one has yet made it into a film, and it doesn't seem as well known as other King novels such as 'Carrie', 'The Shining', etc. The novel delivers a powerful and engaging read, however, and is a typical Stephen King page-turner (all 664 of them - it's a long novel!) The plot involves three stories. One is that of Lisey herself, told in the present, interwoven with a second one, revealing her dead husband's life, as recalled by her. The third story is the one from the title, written by Scott for his wife. More about that later. Here's a brief plot summary.
Lisey Landon has been widowed for two years, following the sudden death of her husband, hugely successful Maine novelist Scott Landon. Although a devoted husband, Scott was a troubled man during his life, emotionally wrecked by his childhood and prone to drinking bouts. Despite the passing of time, Lisey is still unable to deal with his loss, as evidenced by her inability to clear out his study. Then an insane fan of Scott's begins to stalk her, demanding she hand over her dead husband's papers; in order to survive, Lisey has to follow the trail of clues left by her husband, who assists her in spirit form. Through Scott and Lisey we explore the fantastical world known as Boo'ya Moon, where Scott retreats during times of mental crisis. Boo'ya Moon is a magical realm of warmth, filled with hazy red light, birdsong and the scent of tropical flowers. Dangers lurk amongst the lush vegetation and bright colours, however. Monsters such as Scott's nemesis, the terrible piebald creature he dubs his 'long boy'. This 'long boy' appears to represent total insanity, something desperately feared by Scott, given his family history of mental illness. Despite its perils, however, it is Boo'ya Moon that eventually provides solutions to Lisey, in respect of her insane stalker and her grief over her husband's death.
A novel of contrasts and dualities
For me, the novel is one laden with dualities. The plot portrays many contrasts; good and evil, dark and light, night and day, safe and dangerous, madness and sanity. As for night and day, the difference between them plays an important role in Scott and Lisey's visits to Boo'ya Moon, a place that's safe during daylight hours, but in which unspeakable terrors lurk in the Fairy Forest at night. King stresses that Boo'ya Moon is not a place in which to linger too long; its beauty can be seductive and once enticed into its magic, its guests may lose all desire to leave, despite its perils. Another duality illustrated here; that of danger and safety.
Good and evil are demonstrated in Sparky Landon, Scott's father, a man tormented by what Scott terms 'bad-gunky', yet who, in his lucid moments, loves his two sons and endeavours to protect them during their childhood from the rampant family insanity. He doesn't entirely succeed; nobody could endure what Scott did and emerge mentally unscathed. Scott Landon comes from a family blighted by mental illness, which manifests itself as either the 'bad-gunky' of homicidal mania (Scott's brother and father) or as catatonia (Scott himself). Although a loving husband, the man is a dark, haunted individual in comparison with Lisey, who exudes strength and stability. Normally loquacious, Scott suffers bouts of catatonia, as does Lisey's sister, Amanda. The theme of family presents another duality, with Lisey's chaotic yet loving childhood, mostly female, a contrast to Scott's male-dominated and terror-filled one.
What does it mean to be a novelist? 'Lisey's Story' as metafiction
Let's turn now to another theme that's prevalent in the novel. 'Lisey's Story' is partly an examination of the craft of writing and what it means to be a author. King achieves some of this on a very practical level. Through Lisey and the descriptions of Scott's life, we get to see how a successful novelist works his craft, from the way his study is set up to the descriptions of his public speaking events. On a different level, King also offers one possible answer to the question all novelists get asked - 'where do you get your ideas from?' Scott Landon compares the mythical pool in Boo'ya Moon to a 'word pool' and credits it as the source of his creativity. Interesting, as the pool also has magical healing qualities. Does King mean that writing can be cathartic, a balm to minds in crisis? Possibly.
Then there's Boo'ya Moon itself. I interpret this magical realm as representing Scott's mental illness, or to be specific, the state of catatonia. Scott and Amanda are both catatonics who flee to Boo'ya Moon during mental breakdowns; both find peace and healing in this magical world. Is King saying that the source of creativity lies in madness? Or in a retreat from the realities of everyday life? Perhaps. Writing can spring from madness, but it can also present a catharsis for insanity. Another interesting duality!
Is the title of 'Lisey's Story' a misnomer?
A minor quibble now. For me, the title of the novel is something of a misnomer. The novel is far more concerned about Scott Landon's life rather than Lisey's; she plays a supporting role in her own story. Although we are given details of Lisey's life, throughout the book we discover much more about her husband's. Even when we finally read the story that Scott wrote for Lisey and hid for her in Boo'ya Moon, the 'Lisey's Story' of the title, we learn far more about him than we do his wife, as the missing pieces of his life slot into place. That aside, 'Lisey's Story' is a terrific fairground ride of a novel, told as only Stephen King can. Like many King offerings, it's densely plotted and, although long, it's never dull. From the stunning descriptions of Boo'ya Moon to those of Scott and Lisey's marriage, through the sub-plots of Amanda's mental illness and Lisey's stalking by the insane Jim Dooley, King sweeps us along in a epic story that enchants and intrigues. I heartily recommend this book.
Have you read 'Lisey's story'?
Did you love it or loathe it? What elements did you enjoy and why? Leave me a comment and let me know.
A collection of King's short stories and poetry
Over the years, I've come to admire Stephen King more and more, both for his prolific output and the amazing quality of his work. I've especially enjoyed his longer novels, such as '11.22.63', marvelling at how he maintains tension and interest for 700+ pages. I wasn't sure, therefore, what I'd think of King's short stories, although I suspect I could read his grocery list and find it enthralling!
I needn't have worried - I loved 'Full Dark, No Stars', a great collection and one that inspired me to try 'The Bazaar of Bad Dreams', published in November 2015. It's a collection of eighteen short stories and two poems. (Poetry isn't my thing - I started both poems and gave up, so perhaps I overstated my case when it comes to King's grocery list!) It's worth noting that not all the stories are new; some, such as 'Blockade Billy', have been published before, which may disappoint diehard fans expecting a completely fresh experience. They were all new to me, however, so no complaints here!
I love how King prefaces each story with an introduction, often revealing where he got his inspiration. As an author myself, it's fascinating to explore another wordsmith's process for transferring an idea from brain to page. 'Mile 81', for example, is a reworking of a story King wrote nearly forty years ago, resulting from his dislike of a particularly lonely stretch of road in Maine, familiar from his university days. For 'Batman and Robin Have an Altercation', he drew on a memory of a near-miss accident at a Sarasota intersection. The best introduction, however, is the one to the book itself. Here's a snippet from what King has to say: 'Here, sit down beside me. And do come a little closer, I don't bite. Except.... we've known each other for a very long time, and I suspect you know that's not entirely true.'
An impressive collection of wonderful quality
So what can the reader expect from 'The Bazaar of Bad Dreams'? Some of the stories, like 'Mile 81' and 'Bad Little Kid', are quintessentially Stephen King - a demonic flesh-eating car reminiscent of his novel 'Christine' in the first, an evil child in the second. Others, like 'The Little Green God of Agony', are more personal; in King's own words, a search for closure. The story resulted from the horrific traffic accident he suffered in 1999 that resulted in years of physiotherapy and learning to walk again.
In keeping with the personal theme, his preface to 'Afterlife', an examination of what might come after death, King admits to an increasing interest in the subject as he grows older. The story reflects his preoccupation but delivered with a humorous touch. What awaits Bill Andrews after his demise is not a date with St Peter but with a man in high-waisted trousers, who's none too pleased to see him...
My favourite is, I think, 'Ur', although it's a tough choice! 'Ur' deals with, of all things, a supernatural Kindle, which proves that a good author can weave a tale out of just about anything. Talking of which, the preface to 'Mr Yummy' intrigued me. I can't imagine telling Stephen King he wouldn't have anything new to say about AIDS! A friend of his did just that, with King, of course, proving him wrong with his wonderful story of a elderly gay man approaching his death in a care home.
What else gets the King touch? Marriage, in 'Premium Harmony', 'Under the Weather' and 'Morality'; human stupidity in 'Drunken Fireworks'; and a post-apocalyptic world in 'Summer Thunder', a moving tale of a man and his dog that incorporates King's love of motorcycles. 'Blockade Billy' is centred around baseball, but with a dark twist. I loved 'The Dune', a tale of supernatural writing and a study of a deeply unpleasant man. Stephen says the story has one of his favourite endings and I agree; it's a cracker!
An amazing talent, honed to a razor's edge
In short, there's something here for every King fan, whether old or new. This is an impressive collection of wonderful quality from a writer whose talent, after over forty years, has been honed to a razor's edge.
A gripping thriller that's also heart-breaking
Wow! Yesterday I finished Alex North's best-selling novel 'The Whisper Man', and loved it. Two of the scenes towards the end of the book brought tears to my eyes. Not many books manage to do that, but it's wonderful when they do.
I had my doubts when I first picked up 'The Whisper Man', however. We're introduced early in the novel to DI Pete Willis, a man with a troubled childhood, a divorce in his rear mirror and a drinking problem. Cliché number one. Then there's the plot. A boy has gone missing, in circumstances that mirror the crimes of Frank Carter, now in prison. Is a copycat killer at work? Cliché number two. Except that 'The Whisper Man' is so beautifully written, and Alex North provides such a fresh spin on an old tale, that I couldn't help but get drawn in. I'm glad I did. The book was rated the best crime novel of the decade by Steve Cavanagh, and he's someone who knows how to craft an excellent read! Here's a taster of the plot:
If you leave a door half-open, soon you'll hear the whispers spoken . . .
Still devastated after the loss of his wife, Tom Kennedy and his young son Jake move to the sleepy village of Featherbank, looking for a much-needed fresh start.
But Featherbank has a dark past. Fifteen years ago, a twisted serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys.
Until he was finally caught, the killer was known as 'The Whisper Man'.
Of course, an old crime need not trouble Tom and Jake as they try to settle in to their new home.
Except that now another boy has gone missing. And then Jake begins acting strangely.
He says he hears a whispering at his window . . .
A novel of loss, love and the relationship between father and son
Creepy stuff, huh? Yet underneath all the horror the book deals with themes of grief, loss and love. Alex North masterfully portrays a father, still mourning for his dead wife, who struggles to understand his young son. They love each other, yet don't communicate well; Tom feels he's failing as a parent, while Jake believes he disappoints his dad. Both are wrong, yet it takes tragedy to convince them otherwise.
I've already said that DI Pete Willis appears at first to be a cliché. Yet Alex North hasn't made him that way out of laziness; reasons exist why the plot needs this character to suffer a troubled childhood and why he descended into alcoholism in the past. It all forms part of a coherent whole, as does the fact there's a copycat killer.
Along the way Alex North delivers great plot twists - one, about halfway through, stunned yet delighted me! In the same way, he avoids taking the easy option towards the end; when he could have delivered a nice, comfy happy-ever-after, he choose something different, in the first of the two chapters that made me cry. Here the writing could, in the hands of a lesser author, have descended into cheesiness, but it didn't. Instead, it was beautiful. So, too, was a later scene, in which we discover Alex has misled us as to the identity of one of the minor characters. I won't say more, as I don't want to give plot spoilers, but the wrap-up is excellent, including the fate of the copycat killer, who gets what he deserves as well as what he craves.
If you enjoy great crime fiction, do yourself a favour and read this book. At times spine-chillingly tense and at others heart-breaking, this is one of the best crime novels I've read this year.
What about you? Have you read 'The Whisper Man'?
If so, what did you think? Liked it, loathed it? Leave a comment and let me know!
A novel of violence and suffering...
'The White Room' by Martyn Waites is one of the best, as well as one of the grittiest, novels I've read in a long time. In it, Waites fuses a fictional account of life in Newcastle with the real-life case of child-killer Mary Bell. Be warned – this novel is not for the fainthearted. From its first chapter, set in a slaughterhouse, the narrative examines child abuse, prostitution, brutal anal sex, gang violence and murder, with a few psychopaths thrown in for good measure. Throughout the bulk of the novel, the characters endure a relentless cycle of damage, often perpetuated from generation to generation, as in the case of Monica and Mae Blacklock. Furthermore, Martyn Waites avoids the fairy tale scenario of only making his bad characters – and there are plenty of those - suffer. In 'The White Room', nobody is exempt from the torment that Waites inflicts on them; the characters who are essentially decent people – Sharon, Jack, Bert, Joanne – also endure more than their fair share of death and sorrow.
But also one of redemption
The ending, therefore, impacts like a bolt out of the slaughterhouse stun gun from the first chapter. Initially, it seems a little unreal – the soft-focus emphasis on what the future holds for Mae Blacklock, the character based on Mary Bell. After so much suffering and violence, one way to end the novel would have been to abandon all idea of hope, as George Orwell did in ‘1984’. However, Martyn Waites doesn't take this approach. Instead, he offers us a more optimistic alternative. Hence the title of the novel - 'The White Room'. An echo from Mae Blacklock’s childhood, a white room complete with an image of Jesus on the cross, simultaneously portraying hope and suffering. One that offers the reader more optimistic possibilities after the raw brutality of the rest of the novel. After all, if a character as fundamentally damaged as Mae Blacklock can aspire to a better future, so can we all. Martyn Waites himself says ‘It's a dark book but, I think, not without a redemptive ending. Because there has to be redemption. Otherwise, what's the point?’
The White Room may shock you. It may horrify you. Or its implicit message may inspire you. Whatever your reaction, I'd be interested to hear your views. Post a comment for me!
More about the author
Martyn is also the author of 'The Woman in Black: Angel of Death' as well as the Joe Donovan and Stephen Larkin series of novels. You can find out more at www.martynwaites.com.
Following his excellent review of 'The Two Faces of January', I'm delighted to welcome back Michael Nutt as a guest blogger. Today's post will be a review by him of Elmore Leonard's 1987 novel 'Bandits'. The floor's all yours, Michael...
Snappy dialogue and interesting characters...
Written during a period when Elmore Leonard was turning out some of his very best crime fiction, 'Bandits' (1987) is written with the author's customary ease and economy, full of his snappy dialogue, a cast of interesting characters, and a plot that picks up pace along the way.
The story begins with a corpse, in a place where death is everyday business. We are in a mortuary in New Orleans and two men are working on a road traffic victim. The scene is set with some rapid fire dialogue between the two men as they work on the body. Or rather while one man works on it, while the other watches evasively. The evasive one is Jack Delaney, just turned forty, a one-time fashion model who ended up doing time in Angola penitentiary for burglary, and now working for his brother-in-law Leo Mullen who got him an early release through the rehabilitation programme by offering him a job as assistant in his funeral director's business.
It is clear from the start that Jack has not put his criminal past completely behind him. First there is the body that has appeared that day on the mortuary slab, and which Jack recognises as an acquaintance from his wild years. Then there is the revelation that he has been socialising with red-headed Helene, another character from his criminal past.
A scathing comment on US foreign policy
Soon Jack is on his way to the leper colony in Carville in the company of a nun, Sister Lucy, only the body they are going to collect in the hearse is not a dead one. And Sister Lucy, in her Calvin Klein jeans and heels, appears very well-attired for a woman of the cloth.
This is a slow-burner by Leonard's standards and the story takes a while to ignite. The plot has a conventional, linear structure - very different to the author's usual cross-cutting chapters that leap between characters and locations before bringing all the strands together. Written in the late 1980s, Leonard draws on the wars of Central America of the late 20th century - the conflicts in Nicaragua, Honduras - as a background to the contemporary story, introducing themes of responsibility and morality that have been lacking in Jack's life. There is more than a touch of bitterness in the way Leonard remarks on the USA's involvement in those dirty little wars in Central America. He does not spare his American readers the uncomfortable truths of US foreign policy and how it supported the most vicious and inhuman parties in those struggles. Leonard is angry, very angry, as he writes of the atrocities the US financed in Nicaragua in the name of anti-Communism.
An unlikely wild bunch
The bad guys are often the most interesting characters in Leonard's crime novels and he keeps us waiting to meet the villain of this story. Bertie - Colonel Dagoberto Godoy Diaz - is an officer who served the deposed Nicaraguan dictator Somoza and he has a personal interest in the girl that Jack and Lucy have taken out of Carville. He is on their case, while visiting the States to raise funds for his army of contras still fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Lucy's father, a wealthy oil tycoon, could be just the man to help him. It is almost a third of the way into the story before we meet Colonel Diaz and we are left in no doubt about what Jack and Lucy are up against. The Colonel has the CIA and some smooth operators working on his side and Jack is going to need help from some people from his criminal past, so he calls on a couple of bandits: ex-cop Roy Hicks, whom Jack knew in Angola, and old lag Tom Cullen, recently released from a 27 year stretch into the care of a nursing home. This unlikely wild bunch have a chance of redemption, of using their criminal skills for the force of good against evil. But with their criminal backgrounds, will they stay as the good guys or succumb to the temptation of more than two million dollars?
Take a trip in Jack's hearse
I love this novel's New Orleans setting, the familiar street names and locales. I love the anecdotes that Leonard drops in to fill out the main characters' back-stories, each one a short story in itself. I love the way that Leonard will follow a plot thread and character for a while before leaving it and moving off in an entirely different direction. I love how this leaves the story open to so many possibilities, not just with the bandits' quest to steal the Colonel's funds but also in their relationships with each other. The story builds to its climax, with some twists and turns along the way, raising our anticipation like watching a car bomb primed to go off. It ends as it begins, with a live body being transported in a hearse. But we have come a long way in between, and so too have his characters. 'Bandits' is not up there with Leonard's best novels, but it is a thoroughly good read. Take a trip in Jack's hearse: it is a journey worth taking.
More about Elmore Leonard
Thank you, Michael, for another great book review!
A few facts about the novelist Elmore Leonard. Born in New Orleans in 1925, his family moved to Detroit in 1934, where he spent much of his life. His earliest novels, published in the 1950s, were Westerns. He went on to pen several crime and thriller novels, the best known of which include 'Get Shorty' and 'Rum Punch'. Many of these, including 'Bandits', have been made into films and adapted for television.
During his lifetime, Leonard was awarded various prestigious literary prizes, including the Grand Master Edgar Award in 1992 from the Mystery Writers of America, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award for outstanding achievement in American literature in 2008. Elmore Leonard died in 2013, aged 87.
The second in a great series
Readers of my blog will remember that I interviewed bestselling novelist Robert Bidinotto a while ago. (Click here to read the interview). The post mentioned Robert's second novel in the Dylan Hunter thriller series; I enjoyed it so much I decided to post a review for this blog. First, let's have a taster of the plot. Read how Robert describes it on his website:
At his cabin in the Allegheny National Forest, Dylan Hunter and Annie Woods have taken a month off to heal the wounds—physical and emotional—from their ordeal at the hands of twisted psychopath Adrian Wulfe. Annie, in particular, has been struggling with the aftershocks of witnessing the man she loves nearly die at her feet. She is frightened by the prospect that Dylan seems to seek or attract violent confrontations wherever he goes. She can’t accept the prospect of such a life with him. So, to build a future together, Dylan promises Annie that he’ll abandon his violent ways. But ideological zealots and Washington’s political elites have conspired to terrorize and plunder the hard-working locals. These victims have no protector against the bad deeds of the powerful and privileged. Except for one man. A man as ruthless and violent as they. A man committed to absolute justice. Because Dylan Hunter cannot walk away—not even if it costs him the woman he loves . . .
A well-structured plot that avoids cliches
Powerful stuff! 'Bad Deeds' is a fast-paced action thriller, packed with more twists than a pretzel, and far juicier. It's a Formula One race to the end, with a break in the middle to deliver some back story about Dylan's father; this slows the pace down nicely, allowing the reader to draw breath.
The book is well-structured, with the prologue and epilogue seamlessly balancing and complementing each other. The latter, as is to be expected, teases the reader with a hint of the next book in the Dylan Hunter vigilante justice series. Throughout the action, Robert Bidinotto takes care to develop his characters further, via Dylan's efforts to incorporate the woman he loves into his life and Annie's struggles to deal with the psychological scars inflicted on her in 'Hunter'.
On now to the themes of the novel. I found the portrayal of the environmental extremists refreshing in that they weren't depicted as the good guys. It would have been so easy (and clichéd) to have written the environmentalists as saintly champions of America's green spaces and the fracking companies as ruthless pillagers of Mother Earth, but the author doesn't go down that route. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'm reluctant to say too much, as I don't want to give plot spoilers, but the book is an interesting read for its perspective on green issues, although there's so much more to the story than that. Robert Bidinotto has conducted extensive research into this area, which is of keen interest to him; 'Bad Deeds' examines some of the complex ethical questions involved. The results may surprise you.
What about the romantic elements? Robert ensures they don't intrude on the action, but act instead as a counterpart to the fast pace of the rest of the book. I'm not a fan of romantic fiction, but Dylan and Annie's relationship is portrayed sensitively, without losing sight of the fact the novel is, first and foremost, an action thriller.
The bar has been raised to a great height...
As an animal lover, I was delighted that Robert delivered on his promise to me when I interviewed him! His gorgeous black and white cat, Luna, does indeed play a pivotal role in the plot - without her, events would have transpired very differently! I hope we'll read more about Dylan's feline sidekick in future Hunter novels...
Robert Bidinotto says on his blog how concerned he was to produce a sequel to 'Hunter' that would live up to his fans' expectations. I'd say he has more than delivered the goods; the number of 5-star reviews the novel is racking up on Amazon.com indicates other readers agree with me. With 'Bad Deeds', Robert Bidinotto has raised the bar even higher for himself and I don't doubt he'll rise to the challenge with the next Dylan Hunter novel. Not much pressure, hey, Robert?!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post! To find out more about Robert and his novels, go to www.bidinotto.com. He's an interesting guy!
Overview of '11.22.63'
Stephen King is often referred to as "the master storyteller" and for me this is never been more evident than in his epic novel 11.22.63. An lengthy 734 pages long, the book examines the "butterfly effect” that results when one man tries to change the past. To quote from the back narrative: ‘In 2011, Jake Epping, an English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, sets out on an insane – and insanely possible – mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Leaving behind a world of computers and mobile phones, he goes back to a time of big American cars and diners, of Lindy Hopping, the sound of Elvis and the taste of root beer. In this haunting world, Jake falls in love with Sadie, a beautiful high school librarian. And, as the ominous date 11.22.63 approaches, he encounters a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald.’
Into his portrait of the Kennedy era, King weaves the love story of Jake, now known as George, and Sadie, one that never becomes overly treacly but instead is detailed with humour and realism. In 11.22.63, Jake travels the classic hero’s journey, from a jaded high school teacher, bruised from his divorce from his alcoholic wife, to a man who discovers the love of his life and the courage to do what hurts in order to put right the problems he’s caused.
Rich details of 1950s and 1960s American Life
King is a master at evoking small-town America from the 50s and 60s. We are treated to a rich portrayal of a past life; from Jake's first taste of homemade root beer, through the music and dances of the era (Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’, lindy hopping), to the cars (Jake's beloved Sunliner). In contrast to this nostalgic idyll, King also gives us the downside - prevalent domestic violence, racial prejudice, the fug of ever-present cigarette smoke. Idyll and anti-idyll are set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the bogeyman figure of Nikita Khrushchev. Besides the darkness, King provides plenty of lighter moments in the book – absurdly quaint slogans (Drink Cheer-Up Coffee!) and sidesteps such as the fun of George teaching Ritchie and Bevvie how to lindy hop. The humour is more evident in the first half of the novel, before the narrative takes a dark downward twist in the months leading up to Lee Harvey Oswald's attack on Kennedy. The richness of detail is amazing, like tracing the path of a fractal. The blood and sweat of King’s depiction of the prize fight between Case and Tiger. The shat-HOOSH sound of the machines at Worumbo Mills and Weaving. The taste of the root beer and ribs. At times, the narrative is so evocative I felt I was deep inside the novel, embedded in the heart of 1960s America.
Remember the butterfly effect...
Ah, let's not forget we're not supposed to tinker with time. What about the butterfly effect? King provides plenty of hints about the impact George's presence in the past is having, and it's not always a beneficial one. Take what happens to Vince Knowles; the changing colour of the Yellow Card Man's card; the subtle differences in the conversations George has every time he returns to September 9, 1958. This is no Groundhog Day – instead of opportunities to improve his situation, King provides George with more and more chances to screw up the future by messing with the past. As Al Templeton tells him: "The past is obdurate. Doesn't want to be changed". It’s no coincidence that the entrance to the rabbit hole into 1950s Lisbon Falls is chained off, posing as a broken sewer pipe. A metaphor for George’s sullying of the world’s future by meddling with forces he doesn’t understand. A salutary lesson for all of us (not that any of us are likely to go time travelling any time soon!)
High tension, moving towards a perfect ending
Throughout the narrative, the foreboding figure of the Yellow Card Man, a foul-mouthed wino, stands guard over the mysterious portal from Jake’s present day life into 1950s America. It is late in the novel before the Yellow Card Man’s secret is revealed, along with his instrumental role in safeguarding the future of the world. The tension mounts as the past becomes ever more obdurate in its attempts to thwart George’s interference in the Kennedy assassination. Will he succeed or won’t he? As we discover the answer, King sweeps us along to the novel’s ending, which for me was perfect. Very moving.
Why genre fiction is overlooked when it comes to the major literary prizes, when it can produce novels of this calibre, is beyond me. I highly recommend this book.
Marriage can be a killer...
'Gone Girl' is Gillian Flynn's third novel, a dark, disturbing tale of dysfunctional relationships. It's as fine a portrayal of a psychopathic character as you're ever likely to read. To quote from the back blurb:
'Who are you? What have we done to each other?
These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy's friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn't true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they weren't made by him. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone.
So what did happen to Nick's beautiful wife?'
A sharply written portrait of a psychopath
The first half of the story is narrated from the present-day viewpoint of Nick, under suspicion from the police, spliced with Amy's historical account of their relationship taken from her diary. We see how incidents from Nick's point of view take on a very different twist when told by Amy. Her journal entries show her growing disappointment with Nick's emotional reticence, ending with her revealing that she wants a gun to protect herself from him. There are doubts woven into the first half of the book, however. Nick is clearly no angel, being shallow and self-absorbed, but is he warped enough to murder his wife? On their wedding anniversary?
Maybe not. After all, the beautiful and brilliant Amy has attracted unwanted attention in the past, from a copycat schoolgirl friend to the stalker-like obsession of her ex-boyfriend. Could someone from her past be responsible for her disappearance?
'Gone Girl' is sharply written, with language designed to stimulate all the senses. 'The smell of salt and factory-farm meat floating on the warm breezes'. 'Snow like sugar clouds'. Noelle Hawthorne's triplets trail behind her like a kite; Maureen Dunne's knitting needles click-clack while she 'talks in her contented-cat voice, all deep, sleepy purr'. Flynn paints vivid word pictures as she hustles the narrative along, her pace relentless.
My only criticism of the book is one echoed by other reviews I've read - the ending didn't sit well with me. Such a high-tension novel would, I think, be better served by a different finale, although I won't say what or why as I don't want to be a plot-spoiler! Other than that, though, 'Gone Girl' is a tremendous read, one I thoroughly enjoyed.
Other novels by Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn's first novel was 'Sharp Objects', which won a Crime Writer's Association Dagger Award. The book tells the story of reporter Camille Preaker, who searches for the truth behind the murders of two pre-teen girls whilst confronting her own tragic past. Whilst doing so, she finds herself identifying with the young victims - maybe too strongly...
Flynn's second novel is 'Dark Places', in which the thoroughly unlikable character of Libby Day earns money by selling details of the slaughter of her mother and two sisters, a crime that took place when she was still a child. Her brother, Ben, was imprisoned for the murder, but clues soon surface to show he may have been wrongly convicted. How reliable are Libby's memories? And if Ben wasn't the killer, then maybe his sister poking around in the past might prove dangerous...
More about Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn was born in Kansas City, Missouri, with a great deal of her childhood being given over to reading and watching movies. She studied English and journalism at the University of Kansas. Eventually she moved to New York City, with a ten-year stint writing for Entertainment Weekly . She has also worked as a TV critic. She now lives in Chicago with her husband, their son, and a giant black cat named Roy. You can find out more via her website, www.gillian-flynn.com.
Have you read 'Gone Girl'?
If so, let me know what you thought of it! What did you think of Amy and Nick? Did you see the plot twists coming? How was the ending for you - did you think it fitted what went before? Leave a comment for me!
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