Cuban cop Mercado has a score to settle, on behalf of a deadbeat dad, a 'traitor' who skipped free from Castro's control to set up a new life working illegally in Colorado. He settled in a ski resort popular with the Hollywood set, where a facade of legality is maintained by the immigrant cleaners and labourers working for below minimum wage - while the local sheriff is bribed to turn a blind eye. Mercado Sr's dreams of fortune and freedom are shattered when he is killed in a hit-and-run accident.
Adrian McKinty has an awful lot to answer for. Sitting down to read FIFTY GRAND, I thought this would be another good book from an author whose books I've increasing come to like. What I didn't expect was a nearly straight reading sitting, leaving the entire household making do with scratch meals, and the dogs threatening to pack their bags and leave home if meals and playtime didn't get back to normal pretty darn quick.
FIFTY GRAND features a new character from McKinty, Cuban cop Mercado. There are some vague similarities to earlier books in plot location though - set in the USA, via Mexico as Mercado pulls a bit of a swifty on Cuban authorities to get to America. Courtesy of a trip to check out a University Course in Mexico, Mercado skips that country, illegally entering America all in the hopes of finding out the truth behind the death of Mercado Senior. The settling of scores over the death of a father who skipped Castro's Cuba and lived the rest of his life in the US, never contacting either of his children might seem a little odd on the face of it, but Mercado Junior is no normal cop; definitely a child that a Dad like Mercado Senior could have been very very proud of.
Opening up with one of the most chilling scenes, FIFTY GRAND is all about a very short period of time. Mercado has a limited visa for time to be spent in Mexico, so has to get into the US, find the person who left their father for dead on the side of a road, deliver due retribution and get back into Mexico, in order to return home on time and avoid regime wrath on the family still in Cuba.
Because of this limited timeframe everything, quite rightly, in this story is done at supersonic speed. The action rarely lets up, yet at no stage does it seem odd that Mercado would be on this pilgrimage, nor would events not unfold as they do. The pace is frantic, but the characterisations don't suffer as a result. There's tremendous humour, and quite biting sarcasm - the cameo's of Hollywood stars and their excesses are hilarious - but all of that is balanced against the difficult life of the illegal immigrants in American society and the strange way that whole economies are built around their labour, the abuse and the resulting power games that seem to inevitably rear their heads when money and people and control are out of wack. There's the politics of fear and separation as well, but in the middle of all of that action, violence, control and sheer excess, somehow McKinty injects sympathy, compassion, sadness, a compelling pathos around Mercado that just makes you want to cheer for the success of the pilgrimage. Somewhere in the middle of it all you really really really care what happened to this fractured little family.
FIFTY GRAND is undoubtedly a suspense novel, and it's rapidfire style has the distinct possibility of making you feel a little battered and bruised by the end of the book, but as strange as it sounds, there's a real sensitivity in the message that's being told here. The writing, the language, the styling is a sheer joy to read - brutal and lyrical often at the same time, and there really is a great central character in Mercado. Reading FIFTY GRAND in a single sitting might have upset the household arrangements just a little, but it was so very very worth every sad sigh, every cheese on dry biscuits meal and all the reproachful looks they can throw at you.
THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER - Aifric Campbell
Jay Hamilton lives a comfortable life in fashionable west London, listening to the minor and major dysfunctions of the over-privileged clients who frequent his psychoanalytic practice. But the darker recesses of his own psyche would not stand up to close examination: his brother Richard, a genius professor of mathematical linguistics, was apparently killed by rent boys in Los Angeles and Jay was the first on the scene.
What makes a good book? It's something I've been contemplating for quite a while since I finished reading Aifric Campbell's first novel THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER. This was a book that came completely out of left field, but I guess that's not surprising with an author who was born in Ireland, as a Convent educated schoolgirl had a greyhound win the Irish Derby, co-wrote a hymn which went on to become a winning entry in a national TV song competition, went to Sweden as an au pair, completed a linguistics degree, lectured in semantics, worked as an investment banker, gave that up and studied psychotherapy and creative writing.
It's a background that would appear, on the surface, to directly inform the subject matter of THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER. Jay Hamilton is a psychoanalyst, living in a very fashionable area of London, listening to the problems of his clients, controlled, professional, contained. So he seems. When he was a much younger man his brother Robert, a professor of mathematical linguistics at UCLA was murdered - seemingly by rent boys, and Jay found his body. The case has been an unsolved mystery for many years. Robert was a much admired professor, an acknowledged expert in his own field. He was also homosexual with a preference for dangerous sexual liaisons. Maybe the investigation was less than rigorous as a result, maybe there are other reasons why his murder remains unsolved. Author Dana Flynn is researching a biography of Robert and she is determined to scratch the surface of the undiscussed. Robert and Jay had a very odd upbringing, and Jay isn't as professional as he would seem.
THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER is one of those slow burning, hypnotic sorts of stories. Starting off, frankly, in a rather boring manner with Jay narrating his controlled life and his perfect professionalism, the story builds as Jay slowly loses control of the persona he has developed. He is forced to confront his relationship with a mother who adored Robert and regarded Jay as a massive mistake, a relationship with Robert (a much older brother), which was, just not quite right. Jay resents Robert's position as the adored son, he finds the truth of his brother's sexuality confronting, he's not as in control of his own life as he initially presents. Jay's circumstances become increasingly shabby and the truth of his own behaviour is revealed.
It's undoubtedly a confronting book to read. As the narrator of the story, Jay is a fascinating character, but not somebody you're likely to start off, or end up for that matter, particularly liking. There is something that is triggering Jay's behaviour though, and it's probably not a spoiler to say that you're very likely to pick it coming - perhaps that's because of the way that the author is carefully guiding the reader. It's less of a shock and more of a moment when there's a glimmer of sympathy for Jay, then again, maybe not.
But is THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER a good book? It's definitely an unusual book. There are some indications of it being a first novel, a tendency to lose the story in the great portrayals of emotion and feeling. It's not an easy book to read and there's a real feeling of damage and sadness, with not a lot of redemption or positivity. But it is an unusual aspect of crime, and it provides a discomforting but realistic feeling of exploitation, skewed morality and the impact of damage. You couldn't by any stretch of the imagination call THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER an enjoyable book, but if a good book is one that really makes you think, and maybe makes you contemplate a different viewpoint, then undoubtedly it's a good book.
'I didn't want to go to America. I didn't want to work for Darkey White. I had my reasons. But I went'.
So admits Michael Forsythe, an illegal immigrant escaping the Troubles in Belfast. But young Michael is strong and fearless and clever - just the fellow to be trapped by Darkey, a crime boss, to join a gang of Irish thugs going head to head against the rising Dominican powers in Harlem and the Bronx.
Dark and funny, tough and confrontational, lyrical and even poetic in places, quintessentially Irish, DEAD I WELL MAY BE is the first in a series of books featuring Michael Forsythe, a young Irish man with a flair for danger, drinking, and fighting his way out of impossible situations.
McKinty writes in a style that's easy to associate with noir Irish writing, a sort of a stream of consciousness thing, that alternates between incredibly compelling and making the reader want to hide under the bed blankets. Michael is a young Irish man, older and wiser than his age would make you expect, at the same time incredibly naive and almost unbelievable at points, DEAD I WELL MAY BE is the story of how he get's himself into a no-win position. Young, fearless, clever, stupid and naive, and despite not really wanting to go, Michael heads to America to work for crime boss Darkey White. Well he professes he doesn't want to go, but the reader can easily suspect that the adventure is a great lure for a young man like Michael. In the same way that an affair with Darkey's girlfriend Bridget has that frisson of danger. Darkey, on the other hand, is more ruthless about these things, and his discovery of the affair leads to a life and death struggle in the Mexican prison system.
This is the first book in the series, and I have read a later one already, so that probably helped a little in knowing where this story is heading and finding out a lot more about how the characters tick. Michael is a tricky character to get a handle on in this book - wise and knowledgeable seemingly beyond his years and life experience, there's an awful lot of bravado about Michael which might catch some readers - as it does seem to bamboozle some of the other characters in the book. Darkey's more of a bit part in this book, working often through intermediaries, it does create a level of menace about the man that's quite disturbing. Bridget almost seems like the female version of Michael, she's as addicted to risk as Michael seems to be.
All in all, DEAD I WELL MAY BE is the start of a series of books, and you have to read it making a little allowance for ongoing character development in the following books. You may also find that the style of the prose, the internal monologues and rants of Michael, in particular, seem a little self-indulgent at points. You may even find the total lack of a supposed moral compass somewhat offputting, but then this is Irish noir at it's brutal best.
To be perfectly honest, there were points in the book where I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Didn't worry me - loved the ride.
Gregoire Nakobomayo, a petty criminal, has decided to kill his girlfriend Germaine. He's planned it for some time, but still, the act of murder requires a bit of psychological and logistical preparation.
When AFRICAN PSYCHO by Alain Mabanckou arrived in my book stack, I really wasn't sure what to expect. I've finished it now and I'm still not sure what I got. But I do remember it!
Gregoire is a neglected child - an ugly child - an anonymous child - abandoned by his parents - he's raised in an increasingly haphazard manner really by himself mostly. He vows he will be different. He will be remembered. He vows to escape his humdrum reality and commit a spectacular murder. Just like his idol - the serial killer Angoualima. Angoualima is Gregoire's guide, his mentor, his hero. He's dead, but that doesn't mean that Gregoire is separated from him, often sharing his plans when sitting on Angoualima's grave.
Told in Gregoire's own voice, AFRICAN PSYCHO is a journey into the macabre, the funny, the sad, the desperate and the disturbing. At the same time, there are great sweeping vistas of the absurd - not the least because the author uses the most bizarre names for places - "He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot" is where Gregoire lives. The novel isn't set in a real place, just as Gregoire's life is somehow not quite real.
AFRICAN PSYCHO isn't a book that fits into any "category" that's for sure. It's frequently weird, it's often confusing, but at the same time it's compelling, intriguing and just a little sad. Gregoire's an unreliable narrator in some ways, not by artifice or to manipulate. He's fragile. He's very damaged. The world he lives in isn't anywhere near where the rest of us lead our lives.
It's not an easy book to read, partially because it doesn't fit into any particular pattern or mould. It's also not an easy book to read as Gregoire's somebody who despite everything, that you could very well find yourself caring about - a lot.
THE PROPHET MURDERS - Mehmet Murat Somer
THE PROPHET MURDERS is the first of six 'Hop-Ciki-Yaya' thrillers translated into English - written by engineer, banker and now management consultant Mehmet Murat Somer. The book introduces the reader to a central protagonist who is nothing, if not slightly unexpected. Our unnamed hero/heroine is referred to as <em>abla</em> throughout the book which means big sister (thanks to the handy little glossary included at the back of the book). He/she is a well-known identity in the transvestite sub-culture in Turkey. The reason for the dual references to this character is that he/she is not adverse to dressing as a man or a woman, depending upon the circumstances. So let's start referring to our protagonist as abla. (Later books apparently reveal the real name).
Abla is the first to wonder about the deaths of other transvestites - the girls, members of their community - tensions and troubles aside. There has been one mysterious disappearance and when one of the girls is killed in a fire in very odd circumstances, her death is followed quickly by another dead body in a strange place. Because the girls are part of the sub-culture it's unlikely that the police will be looking too hard, but abla and her friends are able to find the connection and identify a likely killer very quickly. Finding proof is another matter.
The book is written in the first person - abla voices it totally, and whilst the investigation moves at a pace that would make a snail impatient, it wanders through the life and times of the Turkish transvestite community. There are some humorous touches, although a large number of these are heavy handed, and there is a lot of detail about life in and around the transvestite scene. Undoubtedly this is where THE PROPHET MURDERS shines - it provides real insight into a community that is going to be different for many of us - Turkish or not. Through abla, the author reveals much about the differences within the transvestite community, the hierarchy of power, the older and younger girls. There are also revelations about the sorts of attacks that the community can endure, whilst having a slightly sly dig at the perpetrator's of the abuse.
THE PROPHET MURDERS will probably not work for somebody who is looking for an investigation based book. You are going to have to handle the slightly odd (maybe it just doesn't translate) humourous moments. All of that being said, if you're looking for something very different then THE PROPHET MURDERS provides some insight into a world that is foreign in culture and foreign in lifestyle for many of us.
BENEATH THE BLONDE - Stella Duffy
Firstly, BENEATH THE BLONDE isn't the first in the Saz Martin series so you're just going to have to accept some back story to the main character and a reason for her past injuries. As well as there being a backstory to her relationship with Molly (her live in girlfriend), ex-girlfriend Cassie and a bunch of other things that are pulled into this book.
A lot of that understanding is going to be required because BENEATH THE BLONDE is as much about Saz and her reactions - to Siobhan, to Molly, to the band, the people around the band and the travelling. The story of who is stalking Siobhan is told in first person chapters throughout the book, but the reasons and who this mysterious woman is only become clear as the book ramps up to a climax. And the reasons are probably the best part of this book. The build up is okay, the concentration on Saz and her life a bit distracting from the events around Siobhan but what is really interesting is that feeling of 1990's rock and roll / the difference between the "star" and the real person, and the way some people's lives are a whole lot more complicated than yours.
FAGS AND LAGER - Charlie Williams
Taking up from DEADFOLK (a debut with a punch if there ever was one), FAGS AND LAGER finds out just how far Royston Blake, head doorman at Hoppers and self-confessed hard man of Mangel, will go for free stack of tinnies and fags.
It seems it's a fair way, as long as you don't mind that Blake does everything his own way (even though he's singing the theme tune from Minder - you just can't help thinking a karaoke version of My Way would be better).
Mangel is a grim little town full of grim little individuals and Blake rules (or at least he thinks he does). Until he finds himself ousted from his beloved position of power (head doorman at Mangels) and surrounded by some very oddly behaving young kids around town. So there he is, jobless, moneyless, beaten up, looking for his local shopkeepers young daughter (payment of the aforementioned Fags and Lager) and somebody's actually had a go at his one love - his 2.8i Capri car (gold - no self-respecting hard man would drive a white one).
So whilst Blake is yomping around (his word for walking) trying to sort out a seriously inconvenient situation for himself, Mangel itself is fighting a seriously weird drug situation and the local newspaper is running its own investigations.
Blake's a counter culture hero if there ever was one - unloveable but totally unhateable; messed up from childhood; totally consistent and even, heaven help us, moral within his own terms of reference; he's out to set things right come hell, high water or a seriously good thumping.
FAGS AND LAGER is dark, tense, heavy-handed, sometime unbelievable, over the top, funny, thought-provoking, sometime believable, disturbing, gruesome and weird - all at once. Don't even attempt to read it if you think it's perfectly okay to drive a white 1.3 Capri.