Review: Small Time Crimes by Paul D. Brazill

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Small Time Crimes
Near to the Knuckle Press
Paul D. Brazill

Hit-men, con men, jewel thieves, career criminals, killers, crooks and cannibals. They all congregate between the pages of Paul D. Brazill’s Small Time Crimes – a brutal and blackly comic collection of short stories and flash fiction that views the world at its most askew.

Raymond Chandler advised struggling writers, “When in doubt…have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” and the story would work itself out. I’d say the Brazill corollary is, ‘When in doubt have a man head to a pub.’ While many of his characters try to reform their ways both bibulous and violent, these hard-bitten by life folk generally find they picked the wrong week to give up their vices.

Or is the WC Fields rule? Never give a sucker an even break — and even the most well-intentioned characters here find themselves driven to desperate acts of violence. Most of them don’t have good intentions though: they’ve got axes to grind and long-nursed resentments to avenge and it’s no surprised to find everything going pear-shaped like life had been formed in a pear-shaped mold.

And it’s all hilarious, brutally so. These are not genteel stories. They’re laugh out loud, bitter wincing fun — if you have a black heart and even blacker humour. Some quotes because Mr B is eminently quotable with a boatload of absurdities, musical swipes and clever allusions:

Yeah, and I used to like Benny Liens. He used to be my best mate. My mucker. My partner in crime. Until he screwed my missus, that is. I sharp went off him then, I can tell you. Which is why I killed the fucker.

They used to say he had more tarts than Mr Kipling. He looked as rough as toast now, though. Hair like straw, face like a blackcurrant crumble, wearing a shabby grey shell–suit. The booze and the divorces had certainly taken their toll on George.

“I met him on a Monday and although my heart didn’t stand still, per say, it certainly skipped a beat or two, I can tell you,” said Martyna.

In the beginning was the sound. The light came later. The sound was a horrifying wail that skewered its way deep into my unconscious brain, until I awoke, drowning in sweat, my heart smashing through my ribcage, my head about to burst.

Truth be told, my most vivid and powerful memories of childhood were always in black and white. The monochrome serials that were shown at the Saturday morning Kidz Klub at the local Odeon cinema, and the Hollywood films on afternoon television, when I was throwing a sickie from school. It all seemed so much more vibrant than anything that real life could come up with. As you would expect of someone who grew up living more fully in his imagination than in the day–to–day, adulthood proved to be a series of disappointments and non–events.

“Hope is the real opium of the masses, Peter.”

I could go on and quote the whole damn book, but just buy it for yourself already. Five stars, shining accolades, Ladybird cover, the Kingsley Amis hungover prose award etc etc. Do yourself a favour.

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FFB: Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith

41jcpvzb2ml-sx160-sy160I’m not sure why I always had it stuck in my mind that there were four books in the Ripliad. The fifth and final (thought I have an idea for a sixth, oh estate of esteemed writer) is Ripley Under Water. Released in 1991 more than a decade after The Boy Who Followed Ripley (which deserves a post of its own at some point — so much to dissect there…noting that down for yet another future project I guess: a long consideration of the Ripliad in my abundant free time), the novel has a distinctly different feel to it. No surprise, there. Much had changed in the meantime, especially going back all the way to the original novel in 1955.

Clearly Highsmith loves Ripley just as much thirty five years later. All of her sympathy is with him and concealing his crimes. She allows him to meditate on subjects near to heart (‘Were women masochists? Did that make sense? Child-birth, a stoic tolerance of pain?’). In our world of doxxing and trolling, Ripley Under Water has additional resonances. After making a successful life for himself with all the trappings of wealth he’s always wanted, achieved with really very few murders he thinks, Ripley is suddenly beset by the horror of Americans with wealth, some random facts and a grinding air of self-righteous belligerence.

In short, he has terrible new neighbours. They play loud music, they photograph his house, and they start to blackmail him about his two most important murders. The sanctuary that the little village of Villeperce offers and the fortress of Belle Ombre are besieged by Janice and David Pritchard, who seem to embody every ugly thing about Tom’s homeland — all he has sought to leave behind. His own life is a careful veneer of appearances, so it’s easy to threaten. He cannot comprehend this pair: after they exchange mock blows,

They played little games, Tom saw. And made it up in bed? Unpleasant to contemplate.

Like the toxic fans who stalk celebrities, they pingpong between wanting to befriend him and wanting to expose him. Their insistence on digging up the past unsettles the careful web of lies and deceit that Ripley has built into comfort. They threaten to unravel everything.

Sometimes his imagination was as clear as a remembered experience. And some remembered experiences faded, he supposed, such as that of killing Dickie, Murchison, even the couple of well-fed Mafia members around whose throat he had pulled a garrotte…There was indeed a screen between facts and memory, Tom realised, though he could not have given it a name. He could, of course, he thought a few seconds later, and it was self-preservation.

It’s impossible not to wonder if Highsmith gave herself the same out. She gives him musings that seem to carry the author’s own. Ripley reads Ellman’s excellent biography of Oscar Wilde, which he sums up as,

a man of goodwill, of talent, whose gifts to human pleasure remained considerable, had been attacked and brought low by the vindictiveness of hoi polloi, who had taken sadistic pleasure in watching Oscar brought low.

She then has Tom compare Oscar to Christ, with poetry, then returns to thoughts of his own persecution by the Pritchards (Highsmith has hilariously petty fun with Tom’s wife Héloïse and the other French folks mangling their name). Pritchard has too much money and too much time on his hand and too much bile. He relentlessly hunts the waterways for a body he suspects Tom has discarded.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this book is that Tom, the eternal loner, finally makes use of the friendships he has built as part of his camouflage. Flummoxed by this perverse persecution, he discovers the value of community and almost seems to take an unexpected pleasure in it. Highsmith wraps up this improbable story in a grotesque, bizarre and hilarious way — which I suppose is the only way she could end it. Don’t worry: Tom is still up to his tricks right to the last page.

See all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog.

Review: Sunburn – Laura Lippman

I inhaled this book. What a great tag line: She has nothing to lose. And everything to hide. The cover is slathered with glowing reviews from big names, big papers (and the Daily Fail) but you know that Lippman’s got a career that has more than earned those plaudits.

This is neo-noir yet as fresh as summer rain (I say with relief that we’ve finally got some this morning — a hot Scotland is just unnatural). Sure it’s got a sexy woman with secrets, private investigators and all kinds of people out to get something and damn the consequences. Lippman takes these sometimes self-conscious tropes and plays with them. Polly actually discovers noir during a bad marriage and it’s literally a lifesaver for her. Adam is no Sam Spade and hurrah for that, but he’s no Walter Neff either.

It’s an irresistible joy to watch two people fall for each other when they’re not sure they can trust each other and everything is against them — but you’re not sure what’s true and neither are they. Lippman alternates between a variety of characters from chapter to chapter and you learn things you didn’t know as well as wrong assumptions they’re making about others. Sometimes you just want to shout at the characters (or maybe that’s just me).

Some quotes:

The problem is, when a man wants her, he usually won’t stop trying to get her. They wear her down, men. She starts off by taking pity on them, ends up feeling sorry for herself.

It’s a special art, asking people to do things, yet making it seem as if you never asked at all.

How had she even figured out what he was planning to do? A witch, that one. She’s a witch.

Sometimes he used to wake up in the middle of the night and find her looking at him. The light from the streetlamp threw a stripe across her eyes, and it was as if she were wearing a mask that allowed her to read his every thought.

Maybe she should write an advice book for men, one that tells them everything they want to hear, as opposed to all those books for women, which tell them to be the opposite of what they are, no matter what that is.

I could keep quoting but this gives you a great idea: lean, mean, addictive — up to the last pages you won’t be sure how things will go. What a pleasure.

FFB: The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

9780140101171-uk-300I suppose it’s hard to make a case for it being ‘forgotten’ but considering the 2014 film likewise faded away without much fanfare, perhaps this novel has been overlooked as well. Yet it’s of a piece with all of Highsmith’s work, which of course means it sinks its hooks into you and you keep turning the pages to find out where it could possibly go.

I woke up with Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’ in my head which was my subconscious at work as usual. The love/hate relations of parents and children often figure in her books (no surprise). It’s key to this one and the relationship between the two male characters: the conman Chester MacFarland and the wanna-be poet Rydal Keener. Colette MacFarland is sexual allure and all the problems it causes. She reminds Keener (what a name, eh?) of his adolescent love for his cousin Agnes — a situation that divided his family and set him on the path to reform school, shaming his Harvard professor father.

He notices MacFarland because he strikingly resembles his father, whose funeral he’s recently missed by staying in Athens. Keener helps the pair conceal a body and then they’re friends — maybe. Because maybe Keener’s really after Colette and maybe MacFarland isn’t the father figure he sometimes thinks. Of course Highsmith is delightful in detailing MacFarland’s elaborate Ponsi schemes and his habits to maintain the various faces he shows the world.

When violence comes, like a lot of Highsmith, it’s sudden, brutal and stunning. Things unravel and so quickly, so strangely — the paranoia of the characters is completely understandable. The POV shifts between chapters. Highsmith, as always, masterfully manages to give you all the information from very different slants. It’s genuinely surprising right up to the end when you think, well this is how it has to go. Good stuff.

Check out the other overlooked books at Patti’s blog.

Best Review So Far!

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Thanks, Matthew! See for yourself buy picking up Satan’s Sorority over at Fahrenheit Press — along with a wealth of other noir, crime and wild new classics.

Review: Last Year’s Man

cover-brazill-last-years-man-300x480pxLAST YEAR’S MANPaul D. Brazill

A troubled, ageing hit man leaves London and returns to his hometown in the north east of England hoping for peace. But the ghosts of his past return to haunt him.

Last Year’s Man is a violent and blackly comic slice of Brit Grit noir. PRE-ORDER NOW! Available 06/22/2018

Praise for LAST YEAR’S MAN:

“It’s all here, everything you’ve come to expect from a Paul D. Brazill caper—the fast pace, the witty banter, the grim humour and the classic tunes—except this time he’s REALLY outdone himself. Unlike the lament in the song the title takes its name from, Paul’s best years are surely still ahead of him.” —Paul Heatley, author of Fatboy

REVIEW

I was chuffed to receive a pre-publication ARC of the latest from Mr B. Always a pleasure to read one of my favourite contemporary authors. Rest assured this is exactly the kind of mordantly witty caper you expect. From blood-soaked shenanigans to effortlessly clever banter, there’s everything you’d expect and more. The motif of the hitman haunted by his past gets a fresh angle as disgraced Tommy Bennett returns to Seatown, the northern coastal city where his past awaits him. A wild mix of musical and pop culture references come at you thick and fast. I was chortling by the end of the first page.

But under the laughter there are a few dark threads (as with all great comedy). There’s a serious undercurrent dealing with age and regrets, of finding hope — but don’t let that put you off, crime fans. There’s plenty of mayhem gone wrong, drugs and drink, plus a pale gangster named Drella (who manages to be both ruthless and hen-pecked) and a wealth of murderous mistakes. The Hancock-esque hitman Bennett (he even wears a Homburg!) seems ready to shuffle off this mortal coil just give up the life of crime, but there’s a cockroach persistence to Brazill’s characters, who have the curiosity worthy of a cat to know what will happen next.

Some great lines:

I watched dark clouds spread across the sky like a cancer.

I placed a bottle of London Pride on the grave. My wife hated flowers because of her hay fever.

‘Then the world is your oyster.’ ‘Yeah, but I’m a vegetarian,’ I said.

‘We all have our own double-cross to bear.’

I woke up when someone stabbed me.

The carriage shook like a junkie in rehab and dragged me painfully awake.

The church clock struck thirteen as I crossed the road.

Patsy, the pasty-faced barmaid…

‘Sartre got it wrong, I tell you,’ he said. ‘Hell is IKEA.’

My advice to you is pre-order this and get your London Pride in now for some summer reading. I think I might just read it again. Now where’s that audio book version?

Review: Leave the Capital by Paul Hanley

leave the capitalI didn’t know what a Graham Gouldman fan I was until I made my way through this book. To be fair, I only have two speeds: not interested and totally obsessed. Unfortunately, the obsessions can be really off kilter and sometimes I’m running so fast after the thing that I think is interesting, I don’t stop to question the assumptions passed along the way.

Like 10cc=Godley & Creme. Ha!

10cc (and Godley & Creme)  has been one of those fading in and out interests. Of course Consequences because of the Peter Cook obsession, but one of my top fave singles as a youngster was ‘I’m Not in Love’ and yet it didn’t really sink in that the song was ‘written by band members Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman.’ Ditto ‘Things We Do for Love’ which was the only 10cc record I bought at that time. I know: eejit.

But it goes back further. On my scratchy hand-me-down but beloved Herman’s Hermits LP the best song by a mile (much as I enjoyed all the bubblegum) was clearly ‘No Milk Today’ which of course is also Gouldman. So I’ve been catching up on his solo stuff and kicking myself for being obtuse.

Now about the rest of this book: there’s tons of reviews here and there, and some great interviews (including this new one with Real Gone), so I won’t drone on about the usual things. It’s an inventive angle (A History of Manchester Music in 13 Recordings) which really brings out the deliberate desire of many Mancunians to ignore London and its machinations as much as possible.

It doesn’t matter that this London isn’t entirely real. The fact that the elitist, greedy, insular, condescending Emerald City exists as much in the collective minds of the North as it does on the streets of the capital doesn’t make its rejection any less important.

The intimacy of the recording tradition in Manchester has a lot to do with it starting small — minuscule even — but also that it’s rooted in the musicians and sound folk wanting to give back to their community. Hanley contrasts this with the whole-hearted embrace of the capital by groups like The Beatles, who not only set up there but in the richest neighbourhoods, too. Savile Row and Mayfair certainly radiated ‘success’ but left them a little rootless.

It’s worth emphasising this again, when Eric Stewart first pondered the possibility of building a professional-standard recording studio outside London, he was completely alone. The thought hadn’t struck anyone else at all.

Strawberry Studios became a nexus of creative sound for the next three decades, an influence that’s still felt. ‘You could tell it was built with love rather than profit in mind,’ the studio’s first female engineer, Julia Adamson, told Hanley.

It’s a fascinating look at pop music, recording, musical influences and the history that binds together any given record made in the city in these formative years. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a terrifically funny book. I read most of it on the train then on a cross-Atlantic flight and I’m sure I annoyed the people around me by constantly chortling at Hanley’s mordant wit (cf footnote 161). What might have been a dull listing of names and dates instead sounds like the best pub conversation you ever overheard.