raymond chandler

Book Review: You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames, 2013)

youwereneverreallyherecover

A one-sitting wallop of a novella by Jonathan Ames.

You Were Never Really Here is a breathless, noirish revenge thriller which reads like a distillation of Raymond Chandler and Lee Child. Rain, blood, broken bones, and despair, in less than a hundred pages!

The main character Joe is a middle-aged man with extreme psychological scars. He was horrifically beaten as a child by his father, and then went on to see appalling things both while serving as a Marine in the First Gulf War and then while working on an FBI anti-sex-trafficking task force. After a mental breakdown led him to go completely off the grid for a few years, he is now an untraceable independent contractor, hired out via a middle-man to break girls out of the sex trade. On these jobs he tends to favour his father’s domestic weapon of choice – a hammer.

His latest assignment is to rescue the thirteen-year-old daughter of a New York State Senator from a high-end Manhattan brothel. It seems straightforward but complications quickly rear their ugly heads.

As you can maybe tell, this is a bleak and nasty read, but it’s also fantastically gripping. Ames is a skilled writer who gets Joe’s pain and suicidal self-loathing across so well with very few words, as well as the seedy damp greyness of New York City. The violence is kinetic, staccato and wince-inducing. As mentioned above, the off-the-grid loner trope calls to mind Lee Child’s Jack Reacher – though Ames’s prose is better than Child’s – and the PI sleaze aspect is Chandler with a modern polish.

My one criticism is that I do wish it was either a bit longer or had a more conclusive ending, as it finishes on a rather frustrating cliffhanger. Perhaps Joe will return?

Apparently a film version starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Lynne Ramsay (both of whom I love) is due to be released next year, and I’m excited to see whether it can equal the white-knuckle pace and energy of the book. I’ll also look forward to checking out the other titles in this superb new Pushkin Vertigo crime imprint.

Edition:

Pushkin Vertigo | 2016 | 96p | Paperback | Buy here

Advertisements

Book Review: The Silver Pigs (Lindsey Davis, 1989)

thesilverpigscover

Philip Marlowe in Ancient Rome – I’m sold.

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis is the first in a long-running series of historical crime novels set in Flavian-era Ancient Rome, starring rough-edged ‘informer’ Marcus Didius Falco.

This series is now 20 novels long and Davis is a well-established member of the crime writers’ fraternity, but somehow I had never really come across Falco on my literary travels, just as I had never before encountered Ellis Peters’ Cadfael. Well, I can safely say that I loved this first instalment, which will surely prove a gateway drug, and lead to me ploughing through the rest of them as soon as I get the chance.

Falco is a loveable and appealing protagonist – he’s a tough ex-soldier with a heart of gold and a wry sense of humour, a cynical outsider, a womaniser and a heavy drinker, and a grudgingly besotted uncle to his many nieces and nephews. He lives in a grotty tenement building on the Aventine Hill where he scrapes by with low-level private investigation work, puts the world to rights with his old comrade Petro, and endures the fussing of his battle-axe mother.

Into this world stumbles a beautiful young ingenue whose escape from a gang of would-be abductors sets into motion a gripping plot focused on a consignment of silver ingots nicked from a Britannia mine to fund a coup against the new emperor Vespasian. The story is full of political machinations, ingenuity, tragedy, and flirtatious back-and-forth between Falco and Helena Justina, his employer’s acerbic daughter.

Davis has a slightly peculiar style. I can’t really pin down exactly what bothered me about it at first, but it just seemed a bit stilted, as if it had been badly translated from a foreign language. But this feeling didn’t last long, as the vivid characters took shape and the fast-paced storyline got into gear.

While a good central mystery is of course vital, a crucial component of an ongoing crime series is, as I’ve said before, the recurring cast, and The Silver Pigs does a cracking job here of setting this up. Falco, Helena, Petro, and Falco’s mother, not to mention the real-life imperial family of Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian, are flawed, fun and interesting people who I wanted to spend time with, and this, more than anything else, is what will keep me reading Davis.

The teeming, sordid, magnificent city itself is also very well recreated on the page, and will I’m sure develop into a great noirish backdrop. Davis tosses in a few cheeky references to Raymond Chandler here and there to play up the sense of noir pastiche – Chandler fans will even notice the occasional line stolen from Marlowe and ‘Romanised’.

All in all The Silver Pigs is great fun, and an accomplished first step in a long series that I can’t wait to wade into.

Edition:

Arrow | 2008 | 352p | Paperback | Buy here

Book Review: The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler, 1939)

thebigsleeppic

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

This is the evocative and ominous opening sentence of Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, one of my other holiday reads, and now one of my all-time favourites. As a huge fan of the noir genre, I have no idea why it’s taken me this long to read this book, but it certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s mesmerising, atmospheric, iconic – it ticks so many boxes.

The Big Sleep is the first book to feature Chandler’s effortlessly cool PI protagonist, Philip Marlowe, who, after taking on a job investigating a blackmail attempt on the wealthy and dissipated Sternwood family, is sucked into a vortex of corruption and murder.

I was instantly immersed in the dark, rainy, sleazy world of Chandler’s LA, and captivated by his hardboiled lyrical prose. For example, as Marlowe meets his employer, General Sternwood, in a humid greenhouse, we get this passage:

“The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.”

Chandler was a genius when it came to crafting elegant turns of phrase, similes and witticisms, all written in a style that belies the essential pulpiness of the subject matter.

The plot itself is exciting and fast-paced. There are a lot of characters, and lots of twists and turns that can be hard to keep track of, but ultimately I don’t think that The Big Sleep deserves its reputation for being too labyrinthine for its own good – everything made sense to me. Frankly I think a lot of its bad rep comes from the Bogart and Bacall film adaptation, which is impossible to follow because lots of details had to be cut out for the censors. The novel doesn’t have this problem, so don’t let it put you off.

One of the first things I did when I got back to London was to buy the next Marlowe novel, Farewell, My Lovely, and I’m so excited to read the rest of them. Chandler fully deserves his reputation as the king of noir and the father of crime fiction.

Edition:

Penguin | 2005 | 251p | Paperback | Buy here