This is the second in Russ Colchamiro’s Angela Hardwicke series. She’s a private investigator in Eternity – the world responsible for maintaining and building the rest of the universe.
The first book in the series, Crackle and Fire, struck me as the author’s attempt to process the terrifying shit-show that was America in 2020 – a universe of overblown imperial ambitions, a crazy narcissist sacrificing the planet unconcerned about anyone in it, everything burning, imminent armageddon, high level talks breaking down, the climate collapsing… I guess things are calmer now (he wrote it before the latest American disasters) and we’d like to forget about all that, so this is a much more intimate, introspective, domestic scale of story.
Perhaps “America looks in the mirror and sees a once-high-achieving teenager who has lost part of her soul. Is it too late to get it back”?
Science fiction is always about here and now, of course, underneath the hype. But this book seems to take that truth rather literally. This ‘cosmic’ place seems more or less indistinguishable from any other US city where you might find a private investigator – there’s mean streets, corrupt developers, dodgy builders, train stations plastered with graffiti, students worrying about their grades, pompous art critics at gala dinners, money-grabbing businessmen… True, the university students are designing galaxies and behind the corruption there’s sinister technology that you can’t yet buy at the Apple Store – but really, the sci-fi setting doesn’t do much work here.
Angela is billed as the best PI in town, but personally I’d never hire her – way too much personal baggage and neurosis! In the first book she was all over the place because she’d lost custody of her child due to her overwork and substance misuse (that old trope of detective fiction…) and for my taste she seemed a bit too easily distracted by the frisson of encounters with other sexy women. In this one she’s got her kid back and there’s lots of weighty underlining of her proper maternal credentials (Come back motherhood and apple pie!) but motherhood has gone a bit wrong and she can’t encounter the sulky teenage victim of the current crime without getting triggered into whole chapters of anxst about her own troubled girlhood and reproductive mishaps, and she’s chosen a side-kick whom she also feels obliged to mother. And to make matters worse, her long-lost baby-papa has turned up from nowhere, and wants to get involved in the parenting of her kid, and quite frankly keeping up with a career with all this going on is really a bit much for the poor woman.
I’m not sure I’m convinced by Mr Colchamiro’s attempt to inject a bit of optimism into this exercise in social realism, but hey, it’s only a novel really. So thank goodness for the arrival of a splendid older lady with great personal style and a can-do approach to disability. Otherwise we’d all be going down the cosmic plug-hole, and that would never do…
De Gevallene, September 2021
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I wrote this review as part of a Blackthorn Book Tour. The views expressed in it are my own and my rating is independent.
The publisher kindly provided an advance copy of this book as part of a book tour. The rating above and the thoughts below are all my own.
I’m not generally known as a sensitive soul who gives thought to authors’ feelings. I tell you – I’m only interested in their writing. I like my fiction dark, chock-full of suffering and evil, just like the world. So thank you authors, I am interested in that stuff. I like to think about it. I’m trying to find my way through it, to make sense of it. Your writing is useful to me. But I don’t generally worry whether the author suffers. That’s their lookout, I’ve got problems enough of my own.
Here’s a book that broke me though.
Most of the book is a series of short stories. At the end there are some poems. It’s a slow burn at first, because the author can really write and for a while that deceives you. He puts you in each moment with seductive intensity . The stories are varied, full of voices and colours, vivid places, different lives. Men mostly: it’s a boys’ book. Not misogynist, but women appear almost exclusively as lost objects of desire or comfort, as fruit that has gone sour, as humiliation. It’s all beautifully observed, wryly funny sometimes. Moments of real life, skewered.
But after a while you start feeling the weight of its darkness. There’s the dull darkness of men whose lives never shone, never got lit up, who maybe thought for a moment there was brightness ahead, but found they were wrong – there is plenty of that. Also the darkness of sudden extinction, of disrespect for life, of casual criminal killing – even more of that. But some of it explodes with yet sharper darkness. War stories. I think this author has probably been a soldier.
He writes with chilling passion. Real passion. That’s a fashionable word of course – everyone has to be passionate these days. You’d never get a job as the person who interfaces the cutting edge between corporate composition and future-proofed transition (empties the waste paper baskets) if you don’t declare yourself to be passionate about it. But no, I mean something more old fashioned. I mean passion like THE Passion. Like Christ on the cross. Feeling every second. Knowing, every second, that it has come to this, and it’s going to get worse. Your friends have betrayed you. You never had a wife or kids and you won’t now. There are nails through your hands and feet and an unsurvivable wound in your side. You thought you could save the world. You were wrong. You trusted someone – god perhaps – and they abandoned you. This is all you ended up with. Vinegar on a stick. Thorns in your hair. Soldiers down below, laughing at you. Your eyes drying out and burning.
In the end it got to me. Somewhere between the last few stories and the first few poems. (Why did I have to read the poems? Didn’t I see the warning signs?)
As I thought how to review this book, I discovered it had broken me. I wanted to say something sharp and rather clever. It’s a brilliant book, and they’re the best to be mean about: a book this good deserves a bit of excoriation.
Instead I found myself thinking about the author’s pain. Worrying about where these stories came from, what hurt had so blinded him to the possibility of comfort. I wanted to put an arm around him. Give him a hug and make him some hot chocolate. Find a nice girl who would adore him and never let him down. Put a log on the fire and something silly on TV. Point him to a job in some gentle NGO, maybe Scandinavian, with a well filled budget for corporate healthcare and trauma counselling. Somewhere where his kids can grow up safe and he can grow old and fat and happy, with no one carrying a gun. Whatever it was that wounded him, I wanted to help him to forget.
I tell you, this is seriously not healthy, this thinking about the author.
So, yes, I do suggest you take the time to read this book. The stories are brilliantly well written and the poems (though please understand I don’t do poems) are probably pretty talented too. But I’m warning you, don’t think about the author. No good will come of it. If you feel the need, let me reassure you. He may be a perfectly happy chap really. Smart enough to make a living out of the dodgy proclivities of people like you and me, who like our stories dark; grinning while he knocks out another couple of pitch black fables, amused to be extinguishing a bit more joy, while all the time he’s waiting to get down to the pub with his mates, or planning a cosy night in with his missus. Tell yourself that. Don’t think about him, he doesn’t matter. Just read the stories. You might like them.
With his publication of Central City Indy Perro proved himself as an exceptional and intriguing author of modern cop-noir. As I wrote in my review of that novel, “This is genre fiction, and some of the components were standard (but the same could be said of Jane Austen and nobody slags her off for it). The familiarity of the genre makes it sustaining, and in the gaps between predictable components there is space for interesting questions and a lot of unexpected characters. In this case, the questions were complex – reflections on how we come to be who we are, how we know what we know, how we question the world and how so much of what we need to know is in the questions we don’t ask. It’s an intelligent book.” I was delighted to learn that he is on the verge of publishing a sequel – Journeyman – and further books set in the same city later.
He is an elusive author – there appears to be only one image of him, anywhere on the web and even there he is looking down, his face a little obscured by a hat… His official biography sounds a little like a character in his novel and I wanted more. Who is he really? And what is his relationship to the world he summons up in Central City?
I was flattered when he agreed to visit the Hard Hat Book Site for an interview and I thought I might catch him off-guard with some critical questions. But all of his references describe him as a “recovering academic” and I found he was more than a match for my examination.
Ah, Mr Perro – do come in. Welcome to my building site. Please, come this way. Molly! Please get Mr Perro a hard hat and help him fasten it. NO! Not so tight! Stop that Molly! No! No! My apologies, Mr Perro, she’s on a program… Let me loosen it a little, no harm done. Sit down, you’ll feel better in a moment.
Thank you for having me. It’s good to see Molly again.
Yes, I’m employing some of your characters now – the ones you don’t need any more. Some of them are a bit disgruntled – loyal service…. took big risks for you… unfair dismissal – that sort of thing. Bruno wanted to… um…. question you about it. I notice you’ve memorialised them on your website: is that a guilty conscience? Did you feel bad when you killed them?
For better or worse, I can’t say I’m troubled by a guilty conscience. I certainly feel no remorse over killing the figments of my imagination, and I hope to move back and forth in time as I develop Central City, the setting. Bruno, Petey V, and others, several of whom appear in Journeyman, have a place in the history of the city.
Ah, so you will go back in time and bring them back to life! An interesting tactic – reparation by time travel. I will let them know there may be better times ahead.
Yes, I hope to tell more of their stories as I gain a clearer sense of what’s at stake, the controlling idea, of the backgrounds I’ve developed.
Were any of these victims based on people you know? Can we have names? Relationships?
No characters are based on people I know. On occasion, I’ve taken elements from people I knew, but the characters are embodiments of ideas more than representations of life.
I was hoping for a few personal morsels! That seems a bit of a trademark with you: a bit guarded about your personal life.
I don’t think of myself as guarded. In truth, I feel like an open book, as it were. In my experience, however, nobody cares that much about me as a person. People care about themselves, their histories, thoughts, and feelings, and to be fair, I care more about their histories, thoughts, and feelings than I care about my own, so it works out.
But you’re clearly working under a false identity. My private investigators have been digitally stalking you, and they’ve come back with virtually nothing. Who are you really?
Who am I? You might be asking the wrong person.
So is your whole life a lie? Can we rely on the biography you choose to give us?
My life is more of a search for the truth than it is a lie, but perhaps those two aren’t as mutually exclusive as I might once have thought.
Well I did detect truth in Central City – about human nature, anyway. ‘We are not all just one thing.’ I’m certainly several. But you? You seem to know a lot about the criminal underworld. Prostitution. Racketeering. Your depictions seem compelling – how did you learn that stuff? Academic research? Really? You mention getting ‘into and out of trouble’ as a teenager….
The environment of Central City is a fictional version of the environment of my teenage years. That, certainly, is why I wrote the novel and felt drawn to the setting of a midwestern city.
I do read crime novels and love noir films, and I’ve been influenced by the work of Samuel Fuller, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Terrence Malick, Cormac McCarthy, and Chester Himes, to name a few. Terrence Malick never made a noir film, but I find compelling his use of setting to shape the ideas of a story in such a way that the viewer is forced to renegotiate assumptions about narrative and meaning. Although I draw from the work of my predecessors, I want to subvert some noir tropes that irritate me, particularly the simplistic depiction of criminality and the caricaturizing of working-class neighbourhoods.
Hmm. Very analytic.
I don’t apologize for my intellectual predilections, but I’m not trying to impress anyone or impress anything upon anyone.
But of course! The one thing everyone tells me is you’re a “recovering academic”. So how bad did it get for you? (Don’t hold back. You’re amongst friends. I’m a member of AA myself – on the “ten step path to recovering ignorance”). So, what was it for you? Ten units of philosophy before you could face the day? Driving an argument with levels of literary criticism ten times over the limit?
In academia, I had no one with whom I could connect. Talking about ideas wasn’t enough; I needed a clear path to using the ideas that I found deeply meaningful.
In my moments of clarity, I know that I didn’t respond well to the alienation I felt. The stakes are so low in an academic environment, which is a direct and unambiguous reflection of the value of such an artificial approach to thinking.
Oh, I’m sorry! And the recovery process… Any relapses? Do you miss it terribly? Any tips for fellow addicts?
I still take my morning coffee with a dollop of continental philosophy, but I don’t miss a thing about being attached to a university. My goal, and the purpose of my recovery process, is to breathe life into ideas, to give them form and function to which people can relate.
So, writing novels is your new drug of choice perhaps? Did you just slip into it by chance or was there a pusher involved?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write novels. I went to graduate school to study ideas that I would use in novels. I felt, by the time I went back to college, that I’d had ample life experience. A wiser man might’ve seen the writing on the wall for my academic career, but at one time I thought I could do both.
So how does it compare, writing and academia?
Writing blows the university out of the water. I don’t need to teach. My earnings depend on my competency, and I can do and say what I want. What’s not to like?
Well, I liked Central City (you may have seen my review). But I gather there’s another one now. Journeyman? I know, I know…. you thought I can just write one book and give up any time, but then found you needed another… Usual story. One of my informants brought evidence that you were planning eight now. How long before you transfer to Authors Anonymous?
Like all worthwhile addictions, when you can quit, you don’t want to, and when you want to quit, you can’t.
My outline is for eight novels with Kane Kulpa and Vincent Bayonne as the main protagonists, and I’ve ideas/outlines for a handful of novels set in Central City but with thematic narratives (music, art, Vietnam, and basketball). I’m well aware this is ambitious, but it’s also the business model of independent publishing. I’m not sure how I would’ve developed Central City without a sense of the broader narrative, and the interconnectedness of the ideas jives with my sense of purpose as a writer. We’ll see how it goes.
I have a wiretap of you talking to some blogger, where you claim that Central City was about how we’re shaped by the past . But wasn’t it more about secrets, the unsaid things, the way truth is the silent eye of the storm, where nothing is said at all?
You might be right that I have no idea what my novels are about. I’m certainly open to that possibility.
Well I’m not leading you – I’ve got your police statements, I’m reading from those… You were telling us all the way through that the important things are the things you don’t tell us. So what was it? Was it something about how you got there, to Central City?
There’s a line in Journeyman about how there are no secrets, only information. I’m not a secretive guy (I don’t think), but there’s always a burden to information, a responsibility. Honesty takes work, and the work of honesty means laboring beneath the weight of the past. If we can’t bear the weight of the past, we’ll have no future.
OK. I guess that’s as much as I can expect to get on THAT subject. Journeyman then. “Not out yet” they tell me. I tried threatening your agent for a black-market copy but he didn’t crack. Tough character, that Henry Roi. So what can you tell me about it? You have the right to remain silent of course, but what’s it about, REALLY?
Journeyman picks up in January of 1993, three weeks after the conclusion of Central City. Detective Bayonne investigates the death of the Mayor’s son, and Kane needs to consolidate his influence in the underworld.
OK, we’re almost there. I just have two questions that I ask all my subjects. First (and this is just a personal enquiry), do you do any martial arts? I’m interested in plotting the relationship between martial arts and dark fiction writing : these days you can do degrees in things like that, but I won’t go into it, I’m mindful of your problems.
This sounds like an interesting study! I look forward to learning more about it when you’ve completed your research.
Slippery answer as ever! So finally (the moral high ground question) but don’t give me any nonsense, I want your true opinion: If you could tweak the human DNA to insert one drive or principle that would modify the human psyche – something that humans would instinctively feel obliged to follow – what would that be?
I recently read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, and I’m developing a novel about the influence of genetics on human identity. As my novels, I hope, attest, I like humanity as it is and take no responsibility whatsoever for what humanity is or isn’t. I’m not a technician. Give me a monkey wrench, and I’ll give you a story. I can’t fix your car or alter your chromosomes.
Well, after that, what can I say? Oh dear, Molly never brought you any tea. She’s discovered feminism I’m afraid – she’s not been the same since. So, any final words before you leave us? Any messages for your characters? Or my readers?
I have two websites where readers can engage my work. At https://centralcitybooks.com readers can explore the characters and setting of Central City and find short stories that explore the histories and exploits of Detective Vincent Bayonne, Kane Kulpa, and the rest of the antiheroes and villains from my novels.
Https://indyperro.com is for those interested in what I’m doing beyond Central City. Readers can learn more about me, the novels that have influenced my work, other artists who are doing interesting things, and events where I’ll be participating. Everyone is welcome to visit these sites, join my newsletter, and follow me on Facebook @authorindyperro and twitter @IndyPerro.
Well thank you. Safe journey back to Central City. It’s quite a trek I’m afraid. But look on the bright side: those nasty marks on your neck will have faded before you get there.
Thanks again for welcoming me to the land of the fallen.
I’d also recommend you read his novel, Central City, but if you are too tight fisted to take me at my word that it’s a book worth buying, you can even download a couple of chapters on his website for free – but don’t worry, once you read those, you’ll want to buy the book anyway, so you’d better start saving up now for the $2.76 it will cost you. (Or you could just skip your next cup of coffee-house coffee, I suppose… )
Bob Van Laerhoven is a veritable Pied Piper, probably in the pay of the devil. His writing mesmerises. He takes us by the hand, dances around us, amuses us even – such sharp, clever, dialogue, such captivating sentences. Yet all the while, he is leading us away from safety, towards some destination that we did not have to visit, step by step, twisting us round, till our heads spin and we don’t know the way back.
And suddenly there we are, struggling for breath, drowning, like one of his characters, in a dark cold river after incalculable treachery.
These stories have a dizzying, disorienting quality. They are set in real cities, against a backdrop of real events – real wars, real atrocities, a probably-real ashram even – and the people feel real as well, too real for comfort. To that extent. these stories have solidity, a grip at the end of their handshake (yes, it might break your arm…) Yet they are surreal too: psychotic glimpes through a dark kaleidoscope, drug-addled sometimes, always at racing speed. Heart Fever. It’s not a reference to love, clearly, but something more literal – the delirious, feverish quality of a heart in the throes of disease.
So why, Mr Van Laerhoven, why? Did I ask to know what kind of soldier kills a baby? Did I volunteer to enter your nightmare, to roll in your mire of guilt, lust, revenge, drugs, violence, betrayal? Did you think I wanted to know about your sordid ashram, the miserable sexual troubles of your antihero, his inadequacy both as lover and as friend?
Harf harf harf! (That’s Flemish laughter, out of respect for the author). Of course I did. I’ve met this piper before; I know his tunes. I tell you: don’t worry, I can handle them, I can keep myself safe. So play, Pied Piper, play: no one makes music quite like yours. I’m listening, I’m following, I’m enjoying the headlong dance. What better company than all these other rats? What better town than Hamelin? What’s that? A river….?
A fulltime Belgian/Flemish author, Bob Van Laerhoven has published more than 40 books in Holland and Belgium. His literary work has been published in French, English, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Chinese… Heart Fever, discussed above, having already been translated into German, Spanish and Italian, has recently been translated into Brazilian Portuguese. Three times finalist of the Hercule Poirot Prize for best mystery novel of the year with the novels Djinn, The Finger of God, and Return to Hiroshima. Winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize for Baudelaire’s Revenge, which also won the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category “mystery/suspense.”
Well, one of my parents was a dragon, too, so I feel for Dahlia Nite: it is difficult living in the wrong dimension, and having to hide one’s scales and superpowers. One gets misunderstood. I also share her problem with compassion: it’s a curse. The need to save the world as well – another curse. I feel that occasionally too, but then I ask myself, why not leave extinction to take its course? It’s a trope of fantasy fiction that the human race needs to be rescued, but honestly, why? Dahlia seems to think they are worth it, but that’s the young for you – all high ideals and sense of possibility – when she’s my age (she’s not even a millennium yet) and she has to wear cardigans instead of sexy bustiers, and nothing can stop the scales showing through her human clothes, she may see things differently. (Though personally I kept my nerve, even in my youth. I never intervened when the dinosaurs expired – I didn’t lift a finger. If it had been her, she’d have probably have launched in and they’d be stomping around even now.)
I’m letting myself ramble on, to defer the moment when I have to admit that I liked this documentary. I liked it a lot in fact. I found it refreshing – so well observed, so honest. I liked the way one could smell everything – human authors who are just making it up about dragon half-breeds often forget about that, because humans smell almost nothing and when they smell anything at all they tend to dislike it or (worse) feel embarrassed. (That’s probably why they hate sex so much). I also liked the meticulous documentation of the conflict we feel – yes we are lonely sometimes, we long for home, we search for connection. But we’re not averse to ripping out a heart. We also have fierce dreams and we’re not sentimental. And now you come to mention it (oh no, that was me…. Dragons aren’t good listeners) we don’t make very good parents. Though of course the truth is (don’t mention this to humans, they are mysteriously gooey about their immature offspring) we just don’t have very good children. (It’s the way they seem determined to eat us alive. It isn’t nice.)
So Ms Schneider does good PR for the dragon half-breed type. (I’m trying not to mention the name she gives us, because – confession time – I only borrowed the audiobook so I have no idea how she spelt it. Lyrekin? Lirricken? The name we’re really called can’t be spelt with a human alphabet, so I guess she had to think of something). And maybe our time is about to come: have you noticed how ‘feisty’ has become a term of admiration for a woman, and badass L…n are getting everywhere? Books, films, adverts even. Slick clothes, sexy manners… It’s not like the other day, when the L..n in Mr Shakespeare’s play got very nastily put down. (Don’t worry, it was all a show: Kate ate Petruccio after the final curtain. I’m not telling you how she killed him, but she let me have a bit of his skin.)
It would be pretty much impossible I think, for anyone, human or dragon, male or female, to read this book and not lust after Dahlia. Which is only natural, and I don’t think Ms Schneider would mind. I’m definitely not Dahlia’s type so there wouldn’t be any awkwardness about her lusting back. And the glorious murders – no spoilers here, but there are several good ones. You’d think it was inventive if it weren’t a documentary. Ms Schneider wants us to enjoy those too, and I have to say I did.
Good book, Ms Schneider. Well observed. Well put together. I’m glad this exposition has several volumes – just like an old fashioned encyclopaedia, I always liked those and they burnt so well. I shall look forward to the others when they find their way to me.
OK, read it as a horror story if you like and thrill at that: it works well. Bassoff writes beautifully. He’s good at atmospherics. Read it as magical realism, as bizarro fantasy. The eerily perfect surface of the town of Angels and Hope sends the invisible fingers that creep up your spine. The descent into horror territory is surreal, explicit, unforgiving and remorseless. Great dark book.
But none of that is as dark as its subtext – the underbelly beneath the grinning plastic surface of contemporary America. About evangelical communities in love with a pussy-grabbing leader defending police brutality with a lie on his lips and a bible in his pudgy hands. About nice patriotic educated people whose version of Jesus doesn’t suffer little children to come unto him, but bombs them or puts them in cages. It’s a book about capitalism – wealth that turns a blind eye to its origin. About corruption. A book about the glorification of the shiny and superficial. The lie of Walt Disney.
Yes. It’s a book about the pus and poison that lies beneath middle-class America.
The heart of the book is in this passage:
The screaming continued, and they weren’t roller coaster screams. Some of the bystanders covered their ears with their hands. Others turned and walked away. “Somebody is in trouble!” Hardy shouted. “How the hell do I get in?” “There’s no sense in trying.” “Better to walk away, I think.” “These things can’t be prevented.” “We should get back to the rides. What if more paying customers arrive?”
I’m interested in the criminal justice system in America. I write to Senators and Representatives a lot. The people who make laws that imprison the poor for twenty, forty, sixty years, stealing their lives. Rich people in big white houses, who feel it is their smug Christian duty to throw away forgiveness, condemn their brothers, and demonstrate their own superiority by protecting the death sentence. I write sometimes to one charismatically ‘liberalising’ Commissioner of the Department of Corrections of a southern state, a man who goes all dewy eyed about how he accompanies each death row prisoner on his final walk and offers to pray with him, as the white-coated state officials inject him with lethal fluid. That Commissioner clearly wants you to feel that this sanctimonious participation in a dance of death shows what a great guy he is, what a pure, brave, high thinking Christian fellow. (You know who you are, Commissioner. You should read this book.)
“Do you think God watches? Hardy had asked. Do you think he cares? I hope not, she’d said. I hope that, after all of these centuries, God is tired. I hope that he’s given up.”
Bassoff clearly thinks so.
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This review was undertaken as part of a Blackthorn Book Tour. The views expressed in it are entirely my own. (You can share them if you like).
The question going through my mind is…. Well why shouldn’t one do God and the Devil as opposing tin-pot dictators, being driven around in limos and buying up arms, each ruling over their own little territory? Why should I be feeling (though I was feeling it!) that it’s not very plausible to do them in quite this way? Plausible? God? The Devil? Would I really be happier with one of them wearing a toga and sitting on a cloud, and the other sporting horns and a tail? Would that make the whole scenario more plausible to me? Really?
I was reminded, in a backwards way, of the terribly disappointing scene in Pullman’s His Dark Materials, in which God gets killed in a battle that somehow doesn’t quite engage the imagination. Pullman’s is a work of staggering ambition which begins magnificently, captivates for several hundred pages, but fizzles out as the trilogy grinds on, so by the time God appears, the author seems to have run out of ideas. Kirkbride is happily more modest in his plans, and his brief novella (no, that’s not a tautology, I mean it’s brief even for a novella!) uses God and the Devil and a hapless Pilgrim to tell an engaging little story that one likes more and more as one dances through it in the course of an afternoon – which to my mind is a better progress than investing weeks in a celebrated trilogy and feeling disappointed at the end… Kirkbride’s is a slight little tale about love and loss, but in the telling it offers plenty of wry humour and a wistful romance, so I couldn’t complain.
More substantially it offers a witty challenge to that clichéd staple of western fiction ‘the battle of good versus evil’.
I thought for a while he was going to do that cliché – just reversing the polarity for amusing effect: God as an oppressive authoritarian and the devil as a laid-back right-on liberal, defending the oppressed. But he didn’t. He presented the battle of Heaven and Hell as exactly that: a battle in the conventional sense with warplanes and propaganda and people getting killed. Perhaps that’s the point: the absurdity of approaching morality as a battle ground, the way warmongers like to do, as something we can impose on the basis of ‘might is right’. I remembered the pacifist slogan, daubed on toilet walls in the university of my adolescence “fighting for peace is like fornicating for virginity”.
I dare say religious Americans will find this story sacrilegious and they’ll complain about it, like they did with Harry Potter. That’s fine by me. I’ve been right off religion ever since the pious Governor of Mississippi decided to veto prison reforms, despite my scrupulously argued appeal to New Testament instructions about humility and forgiveness, which I sent to him personally from this blog. So if there has to be a battle, though I have to hope there won’t be, I may as well get in the bumpy lift, and join the other side.
“Can you imagine a world without men? No crime, and lots of fat happy women.”
Here is a chilling book about male violence. It is written by a man, though it offers as grim a depiction of the male psyche as any I have read from the most radical end of feminist rhetoric. Beware. There’s an awful lot of men in the world and they’re not at all nice.
Oh come on! I hear you say. It’s a book about two serial killers – meat and bread of crime fiction, nothing more: what did you expect?
OK – let’s gets that pair over with. No doubt they will be the focus for most reviewers, so let me be perverse and treat them briskly, the better to focus on the world behind them. There’s Jason. He kills because he’s damaged, he’s autistic, and killing helps him to feel better. Especially when people annoy him. He’s a helpful lad. He thinks he’s making the world a better place. And there’s Howard. He kills because he’s a psychopath. He enjoys the power of cruelty, the more brutal the better. He finds it sexually arousing to torture a woman to death. He’s a nasty piece of work.
But who else does this author give us? Who else populates the world that he creates? Who is there to deal with this double dose of serial homicide?
There’s a weary, middle aged policeman, with a macabre humour and at most a residual interest in justice. Some other policemen, less well defined, but generally unsympathetic – smirking and cracking sick jokes in the midst of tragedy. A drug dealer. A paedophile ex-headmaster. A violent abusive boyfriend. A prostitute’s bullying customer. Boys at school who teased our hero… I could go on. It’s unremitting.
And behind them all there are fathers. Jason generally thinks of his father as he kills people: it is clear who he is killing in his head. Jason’s father was a brutal, sadistic criminal – perhaps a bit like Howard. Then there’s Howard’s father – drunk, uncaring and violent. The bullying father of Jason’s ephemeral girlfriend. The abandoning, brutal father of one of Howards victims. The murdering father of a little boy found dead in a swimming pool. Even Ames, the policeman, stands in the shadow of a cold indifferent father incapable of connecting with his son. By the end of this book, I felt I was being carried along in an unending tide of damaged, brutal, disconnected men, and their damaged, brutal disconnected sons.
Women barely figure in this story. There is a brief encounter with a kindly mothering volunteer; a fleeting tenderness with a one night stand; a few harassed mothers doing their inadequate best; a wife left alone at home while the policeman works late; a middle aged teacher’s impulsive, futile attempt to protect a young pupil; Jason’s momentary connection to a little girl he rescues – before she too disappears back into a world of abuse. There is a kind of yearning here, a disbelieving glimpse of a possibility of a different, kinder way of being human. But mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters: in this novel they are all washed away in the inexorable tide of damaged, damaging men.
A friend of mine, a doctor, is fond of referring to the Y chromosome as “the broken one” – the fault at the heart of the human condition. She also refers to autism, from which one of our protagonists clearly suffers, as “maleness on steroids”, and psychopathy, the problem of the other, as “maleness with vindaloo”. At the heart of both conditions there is an absence of connection, of empathy, a desperate, grandiose, self absorbed aloneness from which all of the men in this grim book seem to suffer. So perhaps this author agrees with her.
What a bleak world he has summoned up!
He has done it expertly. The book is fantastically well-written, compelling, absorbing, immersive. By the end I felt myself sinking into his toxic confection as if there were nothing outside it, as if the world were, indeed, as bleak as he depicts it. He nearly persuaded me.
Thank god for the many men in my life, as diverse and as fine and as tender and as funny as the women. Thank god for the women too. Thank god for the pestering cat even – by the end of this book I was ready to take connection wherever I could find it.
I will give this book 4 stars because it is consummately written and so nearly achieves its goal. But then I will put it away and be pleased not to open it again or to look for a sequel. Perhaps I have stayed too long in this world of dark books that has intrigued me so much. Perhaps it’s a boy’s world really. I may join the Women’s Institute and start making jam.
The man can write. (As my friends know, I am inclined to forgive the devil as long as he punctuates correctly, knows the exact moment to finish a sentence and generally has a fetching turn of phrase; this capacity for forgiveness was often called upon as I read this interesting work. )
He is sometimes very funny. I laughed out loud in a couple of the stories – though the devil does generally get the funniest lines in life, so the man has an unfair advantage.
This isn’t a book to give your Aunty Mary or the children. Personally I would caution against giving it to anyone. (I’m sorry Mr Hatton – I dare say you arranged your book tour at this time in the hope that people would then buy your book for their friends at Christmas.) Please think twice, dear reader. It’s all very well to enjoy this book yourself, but would you really want you friends to know you enjoyed it? Or would you like to be friends with anyone who did? Seriously?
Look folks, you’ve got to understand I’m scraping the barrel here, because some of you reading this might be my friends, and I really don’t (see point 3 above) want you to think ill of me for having rather liked this book.
Some of these stories really are pretty vile, and I wish I hadn’t read them. Other reviewers picked out the one about the fluffy thing. (OK that was grim, but hey, the creature came out OK in the end, and at least the story ensured that everyone looked up Marie Provost on Wikipedia, so it was, at least, educational. If you liked this story – but of course I’m sure you didn’t – you could google ‘Post mortem injuries inflicted by golden hamster’ and please have a nice evening.) No. The one that got to me most was the tasteful evocation of a misspent adolescence, complete with a fantasy that I really wish this author had kept to himself. It didn’t help that this piece was written as a perfectly judged facsimile of one of those meandering memoirs of old friends and youthful exploits that so many people like to put together to impress their younger relatives. Which meant that I really did (actually I still do – there is bluff and double bluff involved here) believe that he was writing the treasured moments of his own adolescence. A bit tough, therefore, when I saw in the preface (shouldn’t have left that till last, I guess) that this story is a reflection on the adolescent development of a serial killer – which leaves some questions unanswered in my mind. (I’m certainly not inviting Mr Hatton for Christmas.)
Oh! I know what I can say! This is a very intelligent book of horror stories. And despite a few lapses, it’s not, actually, particularly gory. (Excuse me, don’t raise your eyebrows like that. Unless you’re Bob van Laerhoven, it’s not attractive. Yes, I do dark and difficult: I have quite a high threshold). It’s certainly not one of those tedious books that thinks it can invoke horror simply by piling on more and more blood, more and more dismemberment. Whatever. The shocking thing about those sorts of books is that the horror of gore is transient; as any surgeon or butcher’s assistant can tell you, after the first few (I-think-I-might-faint) encounters, they develop a bit of a ‘seen one seen them all’ air to them. There is nothing ‘seen one seen them all’ about this book. Each of the stories is entirely unique, and each of them weaves its magic in a different way, disturbs in a different way. This author understands that less is more: the unsaid is louder than the said. So he writes with a delicious economy and finishes his stories before you are ready. (Yessssss! That’s the art of it.) There are two very different depictions of marital loss and loneliness – poignant, both of them, if you really think about them. There are a couple of explorations of religious conviction, both of which made me laugh, but also made me question some previously unconsidered truths. There are two stories about the creation of art, one cynical the other chillingly innocent. (Does this author do everything in pairs?)
So I’m not inviting Mr Hatton for Christmas, but I’m glad I’ve met him again. (OK, it’s confession time: it’s better to own up than have some overzealous reader call me out for not declaring). Yes, I’ve read something by this author before, and I’ve even reviewed it. So I can’t pretend that I didn’t know what was coming. OK. Hands up. I admit it. I rather like this author.
But I’m only saying this once, and if you think ill of me for this, well you’d better put your Christmas present in the bin unopened.
I’m glad that I’m sufficiently bloody minded that having got such a bargain (paying just .99c for a kindle of this beautiful book!) I was determined to finish it even though it annoyed me quite a lot from the start.
It’s an impressively good book.
True, it seems rather too anxious to let you know this. The substance of the book is sandwiched between an introduction comprising several pages of adulation from important admirers and closing acknowledgments name-checking a raft of similar luminaries. Winners of literary awards. A nobel prize winning scientist. A whole slew of professors. OK. OK. Got it.
And the story itself pressed quite a few of my “irritation” buttons. Descriptions of fancy clothes : fictitious people in expensively branded textiles. (I don’t care). New-age metaphysics : native American mysticism portentously mashed up with quantum mechanics. (Very on trend. Still annoying). Books where the handful of working class characters are mainly criminals and everyone else has a fancy job title. (Well!)
But I glossed over that lot (yep, I’m the brave kind of woman who can cope with the squeak of chalk on blackboard and not even leave the room screaming). I did try for a while to skim the book, but I can’t pretend that worked. (If you skip two sentences you find that you’ve moved to a different point of view, in a scene happening decades earlier or later, with an entirely different set of people, and possibly in a different dimension, and it might or might not be critical to the plot.) So I got a grip and read it to the end, through a couple of days and a couple of nights.
What I found when I did so was an exquisite exploration of the interconnectedness of human experience, beneath the invisible surface of everything – our lives endlessly bound up with those of strangers. And a thoughtful, open-minded writer, intelligently exploring questions about free will, about the possibility of relationship if there is no free will, about consciousness, about where we have come from, where we are going. All the while building a clever crime story to a deeply satisfying denouement.
Throughout this is a project of elusive fragility – through the beautiful, mystifyingly connected illustrations that punctuate each part of the book, through snatches of dialogue, through scenes that seem out of place, out of time. It is a book written as dreams are written – tangential, familiar, strange. A question from the book, that I copied down as I read it: “After all, what is consciousness if not a dialog between the past, the present, and the future? What are memories and dreams if not an expression of the speed of life?”
At that moment I was awe struck. I knew I loved this book.
It was a tough weekend though, with this guy pinning me down and making me read every word. Later I might decide that I had Stockholm Syndrome. In that case I’ll have to make do with being happy that I read the book before my friends did, since I rather predict that it’s heading for a Booker Prize. (Even if it’s only short listed, I’ll be one up on anyone who tries to bluff about it from the gush on Twitter. I hope my friends will be impressed.)
Everyone likes to impress occasionally.
Review by De Gevallene
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This review was undertaken as part of a Blackthorn Book Tour