Recommended Read: Substitute by Susi Holliday

Chrissie is a happily married graphic designer with a young daughter. She lives a pretty comfortable and unremarkable middle-class life, but when she receives a visit from a creepy, mysterious stranger, things turn completely out of the ordinary.

Substitute by Susi Holliday has all the elements of a gripping domestic noir, complete with sharp twists and turns, dark secrets, and seismic blasts from the past.

But there is also a techno- thriller aspect to the book that nudges Substitute into Black Mirror territory and gives it an extra layer of intrigue.

Substitute by Susi Holliday is a cracking read and is very, highly recommended.

Recommended Read: Real Tigers by Mick Herron.

Recommended Read: Real Tigers by Mick Herron.

Real Tigers is the third of Mick Herron’s novels set in Slough House – a kind of Government care home for the secret service’s dispossessed. Its waifs and strays, and oddballs.

Jackson Lamb is the man in charge of Slough House and he is a great creation being both larger-than-life and down-to-earth. But his essential right-hand is the super smart Catherine Standish who is kidnapped at the start of the book.

What follows is sharp twists and turns, acidic one-liners, brilliant social commentary, pitch-black humour and the beautiful prose that anyone who has read the previous Slough House books would expect. If anything, Real Tigers is even better than the previous two novels, both of which were fantastic.  So, as they sort of say on Amazon: ‘ If you love Mick Herron you will really love Real Tigers.’ Or something like that. Very highly recommended.

Recommended Reads: Black Summer & The Curator by M W Craven

Recommended Reads: Black Summer & The Curator by M W Craven

A few SPOILER FREE words about these marvellous books. With his excellent novel The Puppet Show, M W Craven introduced us to the mismatched-team of rough n’ tumble cop Washington Poe and eccentric computer genius Tilly Bradshaw.

In Black Summer and The Curator, Poe and Bradshaw are back again. It’s been a very long time since I read two novels by the same author one after the other, but Black Summer was such a joy that I immediately moved onto The Curator. Both books are a skilful blend of whipcrack-thriller and police procedural that had me racing through them but what really puts meat on their bones-sorry Tilly! – is the characters and how they interact with each other. The cast of all three books are like a surrogate family of misfits and are all well-drawn, realistic and likeable, even when they can sometimes be annoying. There is darkness in these books for sure, but there is also a lot of humour and warmth. Extra points for a cracking villain in Black Summer– too! Highly recommended.

Recommended Read: Stray Dogs and Deuces Wild: Cautionary Tales by Judge Santiago Burdon

Recommended Read: Stray Dogs and Deuces Wild: Cautionary Tales by Judge Santiago Burdon

I absolutely loved this beautiful and brutal collection of razor sharp, short stories. These tales of lowlifes with high-hopes – or, more often, not a hope in hell – are reminiscent of Nelson Algren, David Goodis or ‘Small Change’ era Tom Waits, in that the characters are all vividly drawn and as addictive as they are addicted – especially the fantastically mental Johnny Rico.

Despite the desperation and melancholy resignation in the tales, though, they are also as funny as hell. Judge Santiago Burdon really knows how to spin a bloody good yarn, that’s for sure!

Stray Dogs and Deuces Wild: Cautionary Tales is certainly not for those of a sensitive disposition but for anyone with thick skin and a dark sense of humour it is very highly recommended.

Recommended Read: Blood Line by Paul Heatley

Tom Rollins is a former CIA operative who is AWOL and on the run. When his younger brother and his wife are attacked my a neo-Nazi group, Rollins makes it his business to get involved – with violent results. I’m a big fan of Paul Heatley‘s previous books – brit grit, lowlife noir, dirty realism – but this is a very different change of pace. And it works! BLOOD LINE is a fast-moving, action-packed, high-octane page-turner that never lets up. A whipcrack of a read and highly recommended.

Recommended Read: Ezra Slef – The Next Nobel Laureate in Literature by Andrew Komarnyckyj

Humbert Botekin, a disgraced English literature professor, decides to write the definitive biography of his hero Ezra Slef – a world-renowned postmodernist novelist. Slef, however, declines to be interviewed by Botekin and even refuses him access to photographs to use in the biography. Still, the hopelessly deluded Botekin is not easily deterred and he embarks upon the project with great gusto!

Ezra Slef The Next Nobel Laureate in Literature by Andrew Komarnyckyj is an arch and wry black comedy that comes across like Nabokov or Bulgakov, by way of Peter Cook. A cracking read and highly recommended.

Recommended Read: Hard Times by Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton’s Hard Times is a fantastic read. It takes place in Texas in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. It is primarily the story of Amelia Laxault, a bright farmgirl who, at the age of fourteen, is forced to marry Arnold Critchin, a violent drunk. Hard Times also tells the tale of Lucious Tremaine, an escaped convict just trying to survive. Both stories are gripping and involving tales of endurance with a strong sense of time, place, and authenticity. Hard Times is a powerful, moving and unflinching look at the lives of ordinary people pushed to the edge of a precipice, and is very highly recommended.

Recommended Read: Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth

At the start of the Swinging Sixties, a serial killer nicknamed Jack The Stripper stalked te streets of West London. In Bad Penny Blues, Cathi Unsworth smartly weaves together fact and fiction as she tells the stories of Stella – a young fashion- designer who is haunted by visons of the dead women – and PC Peter Bradley, a policeman who is investigation the killings.

First published in 2010 by Serpents Tail, Bad Penny Blues as been republished by Strange Attractor Press and now includes an introduction from no less than Greil Marcus as well as The Ghosts Of Ladbroke Grove, a revealing afterword from Cathi Unsworth.

Bad Penny Blues remains a cracking yarn with a great sense of time and place and is, of course, highly recommended.

Recommended Read: Dig Ten Graves by Heath Lowrance

Heath Lowrance‘s follow up to his classic debut novel THE BASTARD HAND – to be republished later this year – is a searing collection of hard-boiled, dark fiction. The blackest of noir permeates the pages of DIG TEN GRAVES and oozes into its dark alleyways, its blood stained streets and its rain soaked gutters – even the crevices on the faces of its battle scarred and booze battered protagonists. Heath Lowrance’s DIG TEN GRAVES is a lethal cocktail of noir, pulp fiction, horror. bizarro and even sci-fi. There are shades of Kafka and Lovecraft, satire and absurdist humour, chills and sadness. Recommended.

Recommended Read: TRANSFERENCE by JOHN BOWIE

John Bowie’s Transference is the follow up to his dark and moody debut novel, Untethered. Similarly soaked in booze and bad decisions, Transference follows its ex- SAS protagonist John B to Manchester where he investigates a young man’s apparent suicide, as well is digging up the dirt that most of the city would prefer to keep buried.

Transference is atmospheric and violent, a supernaturally tinged noir tale that casts a bloodshot and bleary eye over Manchester and its criminal fraternity. Brit Grit meets magic-realism.

You can pre-order Transference from Red Dog Press, and you really should.

Recommended Read: Layer Cake by JJ Connolly

You’re born, you take shit. You get out in the world, you take more shit. You climb a little higher, you take less shit. Till one day you’re up in the rarefied atmosphere and you’ve forgotten what shit even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake, son.” – Eddie Temple, Layer Cake.

The 1980s was the loadsamoney decade. The era of greed is good and going for it. By the time the 90s dawdled along, London’s young guns had already grasped the bull by its horns and crashed into any number of china shops, flashing their cash, getting their way by hook and, with regard to Layer Cake’s protagonist, very much by crook. 

“Everyone wants to walk through a door marked ‘private.’ Therefore, have a good reason to be affluent.

JJ Connolly’s Layer Cake was first published in 2000 by Duckworth Press but it is set in London in the 1990s. And it is very much a 90s London novel. As of its time as Moloko, Portishead, Brit Pop, Cool Britannia, celebrity chefs, This Life or YBAs. 

Layer Cake’s unnamed narrator is a successful young drug dealer who has plans to ditch his life of crime once he reaches the ripe old age of 30 and live the life of a gentleman of leisure. Of course, things don’t go to plan. Once a shipment of ecstasy is hijacked, everything turns pear-shaped for our anti-hero as quickly as spit disappears on hot pavement. Violence, double-cross and triple-cross invariably ensue. 

The plot is tight and twisty, but one of its main strengths is its rich and varied cast of lowlife characters, such as the short-fused Mr Mortimer; The Duke – the cokehead leader of a criminal gang known as the Yahoos; The Duke’s psychotic and equally as coke addled girlfriend Slasher; a smooth and smart conman known as either Billy Bogus or Cody Garrett; Klaus, the leader of a group of German neo-Nazis; ‘Crazy’ Larry Flynn – a gangster with a penchant for strangling rent boys; and a Doberman called Mike Tyson.

JJ Connolly’s debut novel could well have been received a cult classic for crime fiction connoisseurs, for fans of Derek Raymond’s Factory novels or Ted Lewis perhaps. Or it could have been seen as a well-regarded but obscure London noir like Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City, or James Curtis’ The Gilt Kid. But it burst into the mainstream with rave reviews from all sorts of respectable square joints such as The Times, The Guardian and The Literary Review.

The novel has a lot in common with the all-mouth and well-cut trousers stylings of the mockney gangster capers popularised by film director Guy Ritchie in the 90s. So it’s no great surprise that the 2004 film version of Layer Cake was the directorial debut of Guy Ritchie’s erstwhile producer Matthew Vaughn. Starring future Mr Bond, Daniel Craig, the film did pretty damned well on its own terms, too, focusing on some of the supporting cast of characters and giving us a fistful of great performances – particularly from Colm Meaney, George Harris and Michael Gambon.

Enjoyable as the film version of Layer Cake was, it didn’t quite capture the voice of the novel – a John Lydon/Peter Cook sneer mixed with a fatalistic sigh of resignation. Layer Cake is brash, vivid and blackly-comic but it is at least as much about the argot as it as about the aggro, peppered as much with laddish badinage – ladinage – as it is with bullets and birds. The language is also quite arch, telling the tale in an off-kiler, askew way. Now, 20 years on from its publication, the book still seems breathlessly fresh.

We waited a full ten years until Connolly followed up Layer Cake with the splendid Viva La Madness, which saw Layer Cake’s protagonist attempting to lay low in Jamaica until Mr Mortimer arrived to drag him back into a life of crime. 

In October 2011, I interviewed JJ Connolly for my blog, and I asked about the long wait for the sequel to his debut novel.

PDB: We’ve been waiting for Viva La Madness for ten years, why so long? 

JJC: I was working on films, traveling, messing around, getting in and out of trouble, having fun. Two years ago I decided I better stop messing around and sat down and finished Viva. I’d been working on it – on and off, more off than on, for almost ten years, since I finished Layer Cake, in fact. I got distracted, but distracted in a nicest possible way, in some nice places, with some nice people.

Then Connolly seemed to go underground again for another decade…

Well, it’s now the 20th anniversary of Layer Cake’s publication and this special edition has a very tasty new cover along with a revealing and intriguing afterword from Mister Connolly himself. A republished version of Viva la Madness is on its way too, as is a Viva la Madness television series from Sky TV, starring no less than Jason Statham.

So what next for JJ Connolly? Maybe the hat-trick? When I interviewed him in 2011 he said:

“I want to write another book with the narrator from Layer Cake and Viva la Madness, to complete a trilogy. I like the voice.

So, in the words of Moloko, the time is now …

(THIS FIRST APPEARED OVER AT CRIME FICTION LOVER)

Recommended Read: Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

(THIS REVIEW FIRST APPEARED OVER AT CRIME FICTION LOVER)

Emotionally battered and bruised by his most recent case, Detective Sergeant Pace leaves London behind, including his loving girlfriend and confidant Maeve, and returns to his rural hometown of Hinton Hollow – population 5,120 – in the hope of some sort of respite. But Evil follows him home…

Will Carver’ Hinton Hollow Death Trap has echoes of other dark small town tales such as Jim Thompson’s The Kill-Off, Stephen King’s Needful Things, Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, and, of course, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, in that the seemingly idyllic small town has a dark and seedy underbelly. Indeed, Hinton Hollow seems to be full of secrets and ‘the woods are not what they seem’. Disappointment, jealousy, bitterness, resentment and violence all bubble just below Hinton Hollow’s homely surface and, in the course of the novel, all of this and more is uncovered. DC Pace’s Home Counties haven soon turns into a Hell on Earth.

Pretty much as soon as he arrives back in Hinton Hollow, things go off kilter. There is a horrifying murder, a worried mother sends her youngest child on the train out of town, far away from the encroaching darkness that is soon to envelope the place, and as for Darren from the slaughterhouse, well let’s just say that his story in the early part of the book is not for those of a nervous disposition. 

Hinton Hollow Death Trip is a tale full of twists and turns sharp enough to give you whiplash and it works well as a gripping police procedural, a whodunnit with a dash of the supernatural about it, but it is also a thoughtful exploration of human frailty and our capacity for self-deception. 

There is a rich and varied cast of characters too. Some of them are horrible, some are annoying, some are ridiculous, some are downright scary, and others – such as the owners of the local diner – are really, really nice. But they are all very believable and realistic, even the pompous policeman with the preposterous moustache. 

Hinton Hollow Death Trip is original, engrossing, touching, sad, violent, funny and, yes, occasionally annoying. Because the real twist in this collection of little tales of misanthropy is that the story is narrated by Evil itself, who has seemingly arrived in Hinton Hollow with the sole purpose of making Detective Sergeant Pace suffer for his past transgressions.

As the story is told, Evil playfully and capriciously interjects the narrative with comments, hints, secrets, reflections and even homilies that wouldn’t look at all out of place in a cheesy self-help book. In fact, in many ways Evil seems to be a tad naïve and a bit of a prig too!

But rather than disrupt the storyline, Evil’s black pearls of wisdom help paint a bigger picture of the denizens of Hinton Hollow and their interlocked lives. For sure, in just five days, in such a small town, a hell of a lot happens. Little things and big things. Ordinary things and bizarre things. Good things and bad things. And very, very bad things indeed.

Hinton Hollow Death Trip is a clever and inventive novel that tests the reader’s patience and endurance for sure. At times it comes across like a more grown-up, less of a smartass, version of a Chuck Palahniuk novel or a darker shade of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. And I’ll admit, about a third of the way through the book, I faltered a little, but thankfully I stuck with it and found reading the novel a rewarding and satisfying experience.

I should also mention that this is the first Will Carver novel that I’ve read and although it refers to events in the two previous books to feature Detective Sergeant Pace – Good Samaritans and Nothing Important Happened Here Today – it didn’t hinder my appreciation of Hinton Hollow Death Trip in any way.

A damn fine five-star read.

Recommended Read: The Last Resort by Susi Holliday

Seven strangers head off on an all-expenses- paid trip to a luxurious private island to take part in a mysterious test. All of those strangers have dark secrets that are revealed throughout the course of the trip. I really don’t want to say anymore, to avoid spoilers but Susi Holliday’s The Last Resort really is a cracking, gripping read. Indeed, it’s the very definition of a page turner. Holliday expertly tells the tale by changing the POV of the characters, as well as moving backwards and forwards in time and the result is highly addictive. The Last Resort is highly recommended.

Recommended Read: Sound Of The Sinners by Nick Quantrill

British private detective Joe Geraghty is holed up in Amsterdam, laying low from the trials and tribulations of his life in Hull. After missing a phone call from his former business partner Don Ridley, he later finds out that Don is dead. Geraghty returns to Hull for Don’s funeral and is soon embroiled in an investigation of Don’s death that digs up more than a few dirty secrets that people in high places would much prefer to keep buried.

Nick Quantrill’s Sound Of The Sinners is the 4th Joe Geraghty novel and sees the welcome return of one of crime fiction’s most realistic and likeable private eyes. As always, Quantrill gives us a cracking story with a great sense of time and place.