SNOW by John Banville

John Banville is a critically acclaimed author. His literary novels have won the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. Under the pen name Benjamin Black, Banville has written crime fiction, stating that he sees his Black work as a craft, whereas as Banville he is an artist. With his latest novel Snow, the distinction between the two personas has become blurred.

The Benjamin Black novels largely concern Quirke, a pathologist investigating crimes in 1950s Dublin. Snow is the first crime novel written by Banville, also set in 50s Ireland, with a very brief reference to Quirke. The premise initially sounds like a story from the golden age of crime writing, as a priest is found murdered in a remote manor house in the Irish countryside during a snow storm. Very few of the suspects – the retired Colonel and his younger second-wife, his two children, and an assortment of staff – seem particularly upset by Father Tom’s sudden demise. Enter Inspector Strafford, Protestant police officer, whose presence and desire to uphold justice push back against the wish of the authorities to hush up the whole thing. However the gruesome details of the crime, and a dark undercurrent of motive, make this as far from a cosy-mystery as you could hope to find.

The character of St John Strafford is a fascinating one. He has an air of melancholy surrounding him, and he is dogged by the feeling that he might be in the wrong profession. I really hope we see more of him in further books. The writing is, as you’d expect from John Banville, beautiful and lyrical. It perfectly evokes the attitudes and societal viewpoints of post-war Ireland, and this is the novel’s greatest achievement, for whilst it undoubtedly is a crime story, Banville seems less interested in the plot than he is in depicting a realistic impression of an isolated community populated by three-dimensional characters (something that many of the golden-age crime novels are often criticised for). But that’s not to say that the mystery of Father Tom’s death is not a satisfying one to puzzle over. The writing is atmospheric and unhurried, and the novel is well-paced. Its denouement feels inevitable, yet there are surprises before the end. The clues are all there. Banville plays fair with the audience, and there are a couple of nice twists on the journey. I love literary historical crime, and this is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when the shackles of genre are forgotten for a while and powerful storytelling is allowed to flourish. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

THE SEARCHING DEAD by Ramsey Campbell

The Searching Dead is published by Flame Tree Press (following its original publication several years ago in a limited edition by PS Publishing) and is the first part of Ramsey Campbell’s Daoloth trilogy, to be followed by Born to the Dark and The Way of the Worm. Set in Liverpool in 1952 it follows the story of schoolboy Dominic Sheldrake and his friends Jim and Bobby. Dominic, the narrator, lives with his parents and attends a local all-boys Catholic school. When his class goes on a school trip to France to visit some war sites, Christian Noble, one of the teachers, starts to display some sinister behaviour, drawing the three friends into a terrifying encounter with forces beyond the grave.

I’ve been a fan of Ramsey Campbell since I first came across his short stories in the 80s, which further lead me to his novels. His writing career began many years ago, initially emulating the Lovecraftian mythos stories, but he quickly moved on to finding his own distinct voice and occupying his own place in the list of genre greats. Campbell has a wonderful ability to render even the most mundane object unsettling, and possesses a superb skill in creating funny situations that often quickly give way to disturbing ones, with a deft turn of phrase. It feels like much of the childhood scenes in The Searching Dead might be drawn from Campbell’s own life, and that autobiographical aspect (Dominic has a desire to become a writer) befits the novel. There are several scenes which are so brilliantly written as to evoke a real sense of dread and disquiet, and he manages to balance the coming-of-age story perfectly against the main strand of the narrative, which is the cosmic horror suggested at by the antagonist Noble. The more overtly horror aspects of the book are subtly done, with numerous instances of Campbell’s skill in creating scenes worthy of nightmare. Most horror novels would be proud of having just one of these scenes, but The Searching Dead achieves this over and over, accumulating the dread until the overall affect is immensely disturbing. Despite this just being the opening book of the trilogy, there’s a sense of one chapter closing and another opening as the narrator hints at the horrors to come. I really liked the character of Dominic and I’m interested in hearing what happens to him as he grows older. No doubt the darkness that he’s escaped from is only a temporary respite. I suspect Christian Noble and his dark church is not done with him yet. This is a superb slice of cosmic horror, one that works on many levels, and is a worthy read. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

LONDON GOTHIC by Nicholas Royle

London Gothic is Nicholas Royle’s fourth collection of short stories, published by Confingo Publishing. It contains 15 stories, covering a period between 2000 – 2020, and includes seven original tales.

I first came across the fiction of Nicholas Royle in 1988, after reading The Dandelion Woman in the debut issue of Fear magazine. He’s a very clever writer, in that he manages to make his stories amusing as well as deeply unsettling, hinting at far more than his words actually say. This process of suggestion sometimes also requires the reader to bring something to the story, adding to the sense of involvement and disorientation. There’s a dreamlike quality to the prose, with a clever use of repetition, of overlapping strands or converged characters. In a Nicholas Royle story, nothing is as it seems. His misdirection and carefully layered writing deserves attention, because the accumulation of seemingly innocent phrases can suddenly take on new meaning, often in a startling fashion.

Unsurprisingly these stories are set in London, however there’s a contemporary feel to them, pushing back against the gothic aspect of the book’s title. They often deal with subjects like film, art and literature, sometimes mocking characteristics of modern city life, such as gentrification and pretentiousness. There’s an unsettling undercurrent to the stories. Many of the characters are disturbed individuals, often haunted by emotional spectres from their past. As with reading anything by Nicholas Royle I always come away from the book with a list of notes, references to particular aspects of cultural mentions, which sometimes serve as touchstones to the story; obscure coincidences or precisely described details which dovetail into the narrative. Several of the pieces are experimental in form, but always effective. Particular favourite stories from this collection were L NDON, Trompe l’oeil, Standard Gauge, Train, Night, Artefact, Guys, L0ND0N and The Vote. According to the publishers, Royle is also planning on projects devoted to Manchester and Paris. I, for one, can hardly wait. As it’s one of the best short story collections I’ve read in years, this one comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

HE by John Connolly

He is a fictionalised account of the life and and work of Stan Laurel, the creative half of the world-famous comedy duo Laurel & Hardy. It’s written in a very distinctive style, which does take some getting used to. However I think the style is an important aspect of the book, as it reminds us that this isn’t a biography as such, it’s a novel, or if you prefer a reimagining of Laurel’s life. Connolly does a superb job of recreating the entertainment world of the last century, guiding us from the dusty stages of the vaudeville scene, through the tentative step into pictures, eventually reaching an era in which cinema is seemingly replaced by television. The seediness and reality of early 20th century life is revealed. There is no nostalgic rose-tinted glasses here, it depicts the early days as brutally honest as possible, detailing various scandals and affairs and deaths that occurred. There are a great number of chapters, some of which are just a paragraph or two long, so it’s a very fast read. At times the book returns to Laurel’s final days, spent in retirement at his Oceana apartment in Santa Monica, where the memories and ghosts of his past linger. The regrets, the frustrations of his many failed relationships, the drive that propelled him from just an understudy of Chaplin into a comedy great in his own right, they all hover just out of sight.

By the novel’s real power, its beating heart, is in the way it portrays the relationship between Stan Laurel and the man who was the other half of the duo, Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy. There’s a mutual respect between them both, very tender, which edges towards heartbreak as they grow old and the inevitable happens. The regret, in particular, from both men, on the poor decisions they made in life, is incredibly moving and affecting. Certain other characters – Ben Shipman, Laurel’s solicitor, and the various women he had relationships with – are also vividly painted. It’s a remarkable book and one I have no hesitation in recommending.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

FIRST PERSON by Richard Flanagan

When a struggling writer is contacted by notorious conman Siegfried Heidl and offered £10,000 to ghost-write his memoirs in just 6 weeks, it’s too much to turn down. Despite the man’s reputation, despite his odd behaviour and his uncertain character, Kif is drawn under his spell. As the fraudster’s story progresses, the writer has to balance out the pressure from his publisher against the shifting-sands of Heidl in an effort to work.

Firstly, I have to say this book is incredibly well-written. It feels like an important book, and the author has won several writing award. The style is very modern and there’s an autobiographical element to it that gives the novel a sense of authenticity (especially if you know the background to the actual story). And yet I came away with the book feeling cold. It didn’t really work for me. Which is sad because I usually enjoy reading about writers and the literary world. If the novel had been poorly written I’d have little hesitation in urging to avoid it, but in this instance I feel the problem lies with me, not the book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

WYRD AND OTHER DERELICTIONS by Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill is one of the key figures in contemporary British horror, but to label him as just a horror writer is to do him a disservice. He’s simply a great writer, with the rare ability to be equally adept in both the long and short form of fiction. His novels from the past few years – including The Ritual, Last Days, House of Small Shadows and The Reddening – have certainly attracted praise from critics and garnered him numerous awards and nominations, as well as amassing him a wide readership. His short stories are also just as powerful, and so far he has released several collections, gathered from the many publications in which his work has appeared over the last decade or so.   

Wyrd and Other Derelictions is his latest, a rather unorthodox collection in that, instead of the traditional short story format, the seven tales contained feel almost experimental in style. There are no real characters and plot development, no dialogue. Instead they read as snapshots of a particularly interesting location, describing the aftermath of some cataclysmic event, often visceral and extreme. They hint at what has occurred, rather than over-explaining the situation, which adds to the impact and our interpretation of what has gone on. Often it feels like we’ve wandered into the scene of a crime. The detached objective manner of the description, coupled with the masterful use of language, leaves you in no doubt that Nevill is a writer wholly in control of his craft. The writing is rich and evocative. These stories are like prose poems, lyrical, dripping with stylistic elegance, each carefully-chosen word deserving of being savoured for its precision in the context of the sentence. This is not a book to skim-read.

This short-story collection works almost as a literary concept album. The clues combine to create something more than the sum of its parts, unsettling and subtly sinister, a brilliant example of how ‘less-is-more’ can often be far more effective in horror fiction than the dramatic. There are certainly devils in these details. If these stories are experimental, there can be no doubt that Nevill’s literary skills ensure that this demonstration is marked as a success. Whilst it’s fair to acknowledge that not every reader will enjoy the untraditional aspect of the form (as different readers prefer different styles), this particular reviewer loved the hell out of it, and has no hesitation in recommending.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

DAVID BOWIE : A LIFE by Dylan Jones

The best kind of biographies (and autobiographies) offer a personal insight into the career of a particular individual and allow us to embark on their journey through life with them. They give intimate details about that person, allowing us to build up a picture of what they were like, so much so that the reader should feel they know them personally.  

I’m very pleased to say that Dylan Jones manages to achieve this aim with BOWIE: A LIFE. It’s a book made up of hundreds of separate interviews with David Bowie, as well as the people who knew him and worked with him. It’s a rather original method, and one that works perfectly well in a way that builds up an impression of the man from multiple viewpoints. Very few of the opinions contrast, which suggests that there’s an honesty to the interviews that accurately inform upon the chronology of events – and our ultimate impression of Bowie – that isn’t skewed by the author’s single viewpoint. The anecdotes are often fascinating, and build together to shape the image of a man who was a true artist, whether it be through his music or his fashion or even in the way he inspired others that followed. It’s difficult to overstate Bowie’s cultural influence, and after reading this book it’s easy to see why. He comes across as an intelligent but extremely driven individual who constantly recreated different personas in order to achieve his artistic goals. The stories and observations give me the impression of someone I would very much liked to have met (something that doesn’t always happen in biographies). And there’s a nice balance to the sentiments – this isn’t simply a hagiography, there are moments where Bowie’s flaws are discussed and there are is a cold objectivity to some aspects of his behaviour.

There’s a nice balance to the interviews, which are painstakingly organised into small sections which tell the chronology of Bowie’s life, from his earliest beginnings in Bromley, through the highs and lows of his career, right up until his far too-early death at the age of 69. The fact that he was working right up until the end (his final album Blackstar – a superb record – was released on his birthday, literally days before he passed away) shows how his unwavering artistic drive was not diminished. He left an outstanding body of work and this book is a very fitting tribute to both the artist and the man known as David Bowie. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

MR GODLEY’S PHANTOM by Mal Peet

Martin Heath returns from World War II a broken man, psychologically damaged by the wartime horrors he experienced fighting in Europe. After struggling to return to his old life, he is offered the opportunity of a new start as chauffeur to elderly Mr Godley, who lives in a rambling house in the Devonshire countryside with just a couple of servants. The house has a sombre, haunted atmosphere, in part stemming from the death of Godley’s son during the Great War and the subsequent suicide of his wife. He is frail and in poor health. He sees very few people. In his garage sits a beautiful Rolls Royce Phantom, which Heath dearly coverts…    

This is the first book of Mal Peet’s that I have read and based on how much I enjoyed the experience I will definitely be looking out for more from the same author. It’s a really neat, genre-defying novel, published posthumously following his death in 2015. I always (obviously incorrectly) thought he wrote YA fiction. However this short novel (it’s almost a novella) features themes and events of a rather more adult nature, touching on mental illness and murder, and featuring mild sex scenes and hints of the paranormal. It’s beautifully written, and has a wonderful sense of place. The prose is haunting and evocative, and Peet had a superb ear for dialogue. The characters are honestly drawn. There’s a real sense of claustrophobia to the story, which unfolds at a nice pace.

Part ghost story, part murder mystery, part police procedural, this book effortlessly blends genres to create an intriguing story that works on many levels. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

WAKENHYRST by Michelle Paver

Wake’s End is a rambling manor house located in the depths of the Suffolk Fens. The year is 1906, and young Maud Stearn is trying to find her way in a household ruled by her puritanical and disciplinarian father, Edmund, following the sudden death of her mother during childbirth. The countryside surrounding the house is her refuge, that and her love of reading, and Maud becomes concerned by the increasingly bizarre behaviour of her father. It appears he is being haunted by weird apparitions at night, and claims to have seen fleeting glimpses of things around the lake. The house is infused with a stench of rotting marsh weed, which permeates the very fabric of the building, and at night the sound of scratching – like claws on the wooden floor – can be heard…

I’d read two of Paver’s previous novels, Dark Matter and Thin Air, and thought them wonderful examples of genuinely creepy historical fiction. When I heard about her latest novel, Wakenhyrst, being published, the synopsis was enough to whet the appetite, especially given the bleak Suffolk location and the hints of murder and madness.

Firstly, the prose is absolutely beautiful, evoking a rich atmospheric sense of time and place. We know from the start that something horribly tragic has occurred at Wake’s End, and the opening section (set in the 1960s) propels the rest of the narrative with a real sense of mystery. The timeline then jumps backwards to the start of the 20th century to begin to show us the events leading up to the catastrophic moment. Maud herself is a superb character, headstrong and independent, yet fearful of her tyrannical father, Edmund. Following his wife’s death (to which he shows little sorrow) he begins a steady descent into madness, following his uncovering of a religious painting at the local church.

I really enjoyed this novel. It works on several different levels, both as a historical depiction of life in rural Suffolk – complete with a pervading aura of myths and legends of the area, including water spirits, spectral hounds and tales of witchcraft – and also as an unsettling ghost story, replete with a long-hidden family secret and echoes from past misdemeanours. The book pulls no punches in its plot – for a writer who also publishes YA fiction, this one features suggestions of sexual impropriety, murder, madness and possible retribution from beyond the grave. The final section takes us back up to the 1960s and adds a nice counterbalance to the opening section.

If you enjoy a historical tale or just a ghost story I think you’d enjoy this novel. Paver’s writing is lyrical and yet fluid; it’s not bogged down by being written in a particular style to evoke the early 20th century timeframe. It’s genuinely creepy at times – albeit not as unnerving as either Dark Matter or Thin Air – but for the most part it makes for a very interesting read. I have no hesitation in recommending this.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

A PLACE OF EXECUTION by Val McDermid

When 13 year old Alison Carter vanishes in the winter of 1963, the impact is felt keenly on the inhabitants of Scardale, the Peak District farming hamlet in which she lived. Derbyshire police investigator George Bennett, taking on his first murder inquiry, knows that time is of the essence. Under increasing pressure to find Alison, and facing suspicious hostility from the closed-knit community of Scardale, Bennett must call on all his resources in an effort to find out what happened to the young girl.

Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution was originally written in 1999 and was recently reissued. Why I didn’t read it upon its initial publication I have no idea. I’m a fan of McDermid’s fiction and only picked this up because it’s a stand-alone novel with no series’ character so I thought it would be ideal for a one-off read. Let me tell you, I am so grateful that I did, because A Place of Execution is absolutely outstanding.

Firstly, it’s a huge novel – around 132,000 words – but the length befits the story, as the novel takes us all the way through the investigation, right from the girls’ disappearance at the start, via the police investigation and plot development, through to the eventual arrest and even the trial. Then there’s the final twist, as the story then leaps forward 35 years when a journalist – who has written a book detailing the original tragic events of 1963 – uncovers some fresh information which sheds light onto the original investigation. As well as a superb police procedural, it’s a clever whodunnit, with several twists along the way, and a fascinating insight into the criminal process.

The novel is told very much from the point of view of investigator George Bennett, whose dogged determination to gain closure for the girl’s family feels real and heart-breakingly earnest. About two thirds of the way through the novel I thought I had guessed the outcome, yet I was completely fooled by the time I had reached the end.

The pacing is excellent, with a lovely consistency to the prose, evoking a wonderfully atmospheric recreation of a bleak Derbyshire farming community. At times the narrative references the real-life Moors Murders, of which I believe McDermid covered as a journalist in the 1960s, which is a sobering reminder that against the backdrop of fictionalised crime, devastating events actually took place. This casts a very dark pall over the whole proceedings. By the time the conclusion is reached, there are seriously dramatic implications for many the characters, lending the story an almost Shakespearean element.

Because of the fulness of the investigation story, and the logical yet unexpected conclusion to the mystery, I found A Place of Execution to be an absolute crime classic, and worthy of anyone’s time. McDermind’s prose is masterful and confident, displaying assured storytelling skills and controlled dialogue. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment