Thursday, 28 July 2016

Eoin Colfer's Plugged and Screwed

Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books  were favourites of my son James and extremely entertaining, carefully iconoclastic young teenager fiction which led Jimbo straight on to The Great Carl Hiassen. Thence to Hemingway, McCarthy, all kinds of ‘proper’ literature and now a flourishing career as an author of wildly successful tomes on how to make bread, cakes and beer. Fortunately, having seen where writing and showbiz get you, he has a proper job as well.

Anyway it’s at least partly Eoin Colfer’s fault, who - while remaining a top bairns’ writer, and currently being Laureate nan Og (Ireland’s children’s laureate)has come up with a brilliant plan to maintain contact with his demographic as it ages. Many of his once-young readers are now adults, sort of, with an implanted need for the same kind of witty brutality as found in Fowl, easy-reading crime fiction though now with the violence, coy sex, super-sweariness and arch media references young men with tattoos’n’tweed expect in their light reading matter. Post-Hiassen stuff, in fact, Jack Reacher  with a sense of humour. Kind of Tony Soprano  - they’re set in New Jersey - with less angst. Oh, and McEvoy’s Irish. “If you loved Artemis Fowl” goes the publisher’s tagline on one edition’s cover, “it’s time to grow up.”

So we have Daniel McEvoy, former Irish army sergeant, suffering PTSD from his time as a UN peacekeeper in Lebanon (but hey, often to hilarious effect) and now (in Plugged) a doorman in the small NJ town of Cloisters. The follow-up, Screwed, sees Daniel as owner of a sleazy casino and drinking den called Slotz. Presumably the third book will be called Fucked, though his publishers may have words to say on the subject.

Both Plugged and Screwed (Screwed more so, as Colfer was evidently in the Adult Orientated Raunch groove by the time he wrote it) are effortlessly brilliant romps, seamlessly plotted, frenetically paced and full of characters you recognise from TV shows, films and other books. Notably, McEvoy is like a cartoon version of Adrian McKinty’s early Michael Forsythe character.

It’s broad brush stuff, but very funny, full of outlandish Hiassenesque scenes (especially echoing Striptease) and with a host of deadpan one/two liners (“there isn’t a naked person on this planet who isn’t scared of hot pasta”...”they say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I would argue that a scorned woman would pale and back out of the room when faced with a Rottweiler who just got his scrotum twisted…”)

McEvoy has psychological and hair transplant problems, plus a shrink (from The Sopranos) and a Jewish doctor pal (out of Hiassen and MASH). He’s very good at killing but queasy about the actual act. He has a lot of sex but is loath to go into details. Hey, kids might be reading. And there’s a complicated family background involving his mother’s millionaire dad (shades of Benjamin Black/John Banville’s Quirke).

Colfer is very good in Jersey and NYC psychogeography and breakfast at Norma’s in the Park Meridien is definitely on the cards for me should I ever visit the city again. The occasional lapses into maudlin self-examination are forgivable. Just.

I read Screwed first, which I definitely do NOT advise, as some of the characters only make proper sense if you first meet them in Plugged. Which I didn’t. These are fast, snacky reads, full of fun, guns and violence, very cleverly constructed and snappily written. Worth a penny plus postage on Amazon in my book. Liam Neeson in the movies, surely? Perhaps too much hair.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Turning Blue, by Benjamin Myers: Reservoirs of rural evil

Turning Blue

Benjamin Myers

Moth publishing, £7.99. Published 11 August 2016

Like any other trend of temporary grooviness, the hipster nature writing thing will surely run its course. There have been some outstanding pieces of tweedy, wind-scoured, leaky-wellie writing over the past few beardy years, but the whole Caught By the River cult, this back-to-nature reaction to cokefreak urbanism, will inevitably wither and fade. Too much of its confessional wing wallows in the river twee, and its fashionable links with the whole vintage canvas knapsack and hand-made clog scene is hard to take here in the real, Gore-Tex and ripstop world of remote living.

Benjamin Myers, though an enthusiastic participant in the Robert MacFarlane landscapery-worship movement, is destined to outlast and outgrow the merely transient Lawrence-lite, and there are some very good reasons for that. His body of work is a fascinating progression from commissioned cuttings-file rock biography (System of a Down, Lydon, Green Day, Muse, The Clash) through the hilariously transitional The Book of Fuck (squat-dwelling rock hack tries to interview a Marylyn Manson figure) to the pivotal Richard, a truly affecting fictionalisation of Manics songwriter Richey Edwards’ last days.

Carefully and lovingly written, that controversial book’s tale of a rural journey into oblivion saw Myers tackling landscape for the first time to great effect. Myers’ relocation to Yorkshire (he’s a Durham lad originally) then brought about a severing of ties with the rock music that had hitherto fuelled his muse and paid the bills, and initiated a concentration on overtly rural themes: The gypsy death-fighting of the ferocious Pig Iron and then the astonishing Beastings - a child kidnapping, a priestly pursuit, the utter corruption of religion set among the glowering Cumbrian fells.

Pig Iron and Beastings are both brutal, beautiful books, prose pared to the bone, owing greatly to the Hemingway via McCarthy school of American writers but uncompromisingly English in tone. And they benefit greatly from the fact that Myers is a pro. He’s been a prolific rock hack since his university days, he’s fought the sub-editing wars for decades; he’s grammatically armed, experienced,  and capable of subverting language to dangerous effect. Beastings has the power of folk myth, and some uncompromisingly disturbing scenes which led me to lend it out with stern warnings for the easily offended.

I wondered, though, when I heard Myers was planning a, for want of a better term, ‘detective series’. It would be ‘folk noir’, we were promised. OK, that could work. But was this an attempt to commercialise his vision of rural life, to render his themes more accessible to a bigger audience? And is there anything wrong with that?

No, in my opinion. And so we have Turning Blue, which is being sold as the first in ‘the Brindle and Mace series’. That would be Detective Sergeant Brindle of the mysterious Cold Storage unit (which bears a certain resemblance to Derek Raymond’s The Factory) and Roddy Mace, former tabloid journalist, who has renounced the moral soup of London for a local newspaper in the dales and a beer-and-vodka stymied attempt to Write A Book.

Rural detective stories are nothing new. The Midsomer Murders concept has become a joke (how dangerous IS Midsomer?) mainly due to its endlessly repetitive televising, and then there’s the Anne Cleeves phenomenon, with the Jimmy Perez books set in Shetland and the Vera Stanhope mysteries, which take place not far away from the desolate moorland of Turning Blue.

Barnaby, Perez and Stanhope are mass library fodder, inoffensive plodders whose agonising is all Mumsnet forum stuff. Myers is trying for something much closer to what we see Sally Wainwright going for in Happy Valley and in the first series of Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch or Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line. Only much, much darker.

I mentioned Derek Raymond’s Factory novels earlier and if you’re aware of how deep into the details of moral degradation I was Dora Suarez or How the Dead Live go, you’ll still be unprepared for the sheer amount of human horror in Turning Blue. The descriptions never cross the line into the truly unpleasant sadism found in the likes of Stuart MacBride’s Logan Macrae books, but finding yourself more and more inside the head of the appalling Steven Rutter grows increasingly hard to take. Yes, I know there are mythic overtones to what he gets up to, horrible old folk songs that clog dance the same murky territory, but still. I’d argue that this aspect overbalances the book, leaves the truly unique partnership that develops between Brindle and Mace, and their fascinating characters, a little swamped.

As for the Yorkshire landscape, as you’d expect it’s superbly captured, initially in a snowbound winter, then spring, then summer, the seasonal structure tracking the revelations effectively. It’s extremely well plotted, moving inexorably from the disappearance of one girl, Melanie Muncy, to a vast and pullulating evil spreading from the Dales throughout the land. Though I’m loath to give away too much, I will say that TV star ‘Lovely’ Larry Lister’s resemblance to Jimmy Saville, and what Saville was involved with (cf the last series of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty) is more than significant.

There are echoes of the great Bill James (Harpur and Iles) at his peak, but in terms of the current pantheon of crime writing, there truly is nothing with Turning Blue’s dark power and literary ferocity, save perhaps some of Louise Welsh’s early work. It IS the first in a series. Good. This is very serious, very disturbing but hugely compulsive crime fiction.

Two things: the textual device of running the dialogue without any quotation marks may give a sense of uh, poetic literary-ness, but in a book of this length and with this many characters it truly messes up your appreciation of who’s actually speaking…(a sub-editor writes). And I should mention the ‘press pack’ (pictured) which came with my advance copy.

Experimentation has proved that was just dried moss in the tobacco tin...

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Thrillfilter is back! Coming up in the next few days and weeks: Rankin, Myers, Mitchell, Gardner, Colfer, Proulx and more

It’s not that I stopped reading after the heart business, the stent, the relapse, the heavy duty medication and the sense of imminent demise. I read like a crazy man. I read as if each book was going to be my last. I just couldn’t be bothered writing about the writing I was reading. There was always another Amazon Prime two quid deal (including postage), a heap of back catalogues to catch up with, the occasional full-price quagmire to squelch through (thank you, Annie Proulx). Dearie me, Barkskins is absolutely terrible.

So Thrillfilter has taken a back seat. A seat in the bleachers. A perch on a faraway tree, overlooking a deserted motorway interchange. Until now.

I’m at a point where the medication has eased, the stent has presumably bedded in and there’s a distinct possibility I could go on living, reading and even writing for a time yet. I’ve started cycling again. Given up the medicinal red wine (when my cardiologist said ‘one drink a day’ he meant one bottle, right?’). And I’m suddenly busy with stuff like 60 North Radio, serving as a non-exec on the local health board, one or two wee magazine columns, and most recently being a (surprisingly busy) funeral celebrant.

What have I been reading over the past year? Deluges, veritable cataracts of ‘genre’ fiction - much of which is going to have to remain uncelebrated in these colyooms. And re-reading, a comfort thing. A third (or it may be fourth) trip through the entire Len Deighton/Bernard Sampson saga - 10 books, in order, starting with A Berlin Family. Lumps of Ian and Ian M Banks. PG Wodehouse (overrated). The wonderful, ignored and now mostly out of print Anthony Price. Alexei Sayle (those short stories are stunning, especially Barcelona Plates, still). And much more, as those DJs say.

Anyway, I’m going to revive Thrillfilter, and imminently there will be reviews appearing of the amazing and harrowing Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers, Screwed by Eoin Colfer, Ian Rankin’s Even Dogs in the Wild, The awful Barkskins, the lost spy novels of John Gardner and a look at the work of the aforementioned Anthony Price. Oh, and David Mitchell’s mind bending, rip-roaring take on sci-fi fantasy, The Bone Clocks and Slade House.

All coming up...very soon