Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Drink and death…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Claude Margolis is found stabbed to death, suspicion falls not unnaturally on a woman who has been spending time with him recently, Virginia Barkeley, who is found wandering the streets nearby in a drunken state and covered in blood. Virginia’s husband hires lawyer Eric Meecham to defend her. However his lawyerly skills aren’t needed for too long, since although Virginia can’t remember the events of the evening, another witness has come forward whose evidence seems to clear her. But something doesn’t feel quite right about the whole thing to Meecham, and he finds himself trying to find out exactly what did happen to Margolis…

This is billed as noir, but although it has some noir elements I don’t think it sits fully in that genre. It’s closer to a traditional mystery in style with Meecham playing the role of the unofficial detective. None of the various women fulfils the requirements of the femme fatale, being considerably more realistic and well-rounded than those usually are. Meecham is a little cynical about human nature, but he’s not completely world-weary, he works within the law, and he treats women like real people even if he does display the occasional “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality typical of the time.

However, there are undoubtedly bleak aspects to the story that may be why some consider it noir. Drink plays a large part – not just Virginia’s blackout, but there’s another character, an elderly woman who, late in life, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of not drinking. As her son says of her “One drink, and she was a drunk. She’d been a drunk for maybe thirty years and didn’t find it out until then. For her the world vanished in that instant.” It’s a really excellent portrayal of the shame of alcoholism for an elderly, respectable woman – hiding and lying, trying to keep up appearances, and always desperately trying to find the money to buy the next bottle.

Book 7 of 80

Her son, Earl Loftus, is another interesting characterisation. Still a young man, he is dying of a then incurable condition – leukaemia – and Millar shows how this affects his thoughts and actions, and the people around him. I am deliberately avoiding saying how Earl fits into the story, since the plot is revealed slowly and steadily as the book progresses and almost any information about it could count as a spoiler. But I found the depiction of him as a dying man credible and quite moving, and his actions seemed to arise naturally out of his situation.

The pace is slow and steady throughout, perhaps a little too slow in the middle section where I found my interest dipping for a while. But Meecham is a likeable lead character who shows a lot of empathy and understanding for the weakness and frailties that lead the other characters to act as they do. I could have done without the instant “true love” he finds with a character with whom he has exchanged all of about six sentences, especially since I found the girl annoyingly keen to become his adoring, submissive slave. (Is it just me, or are female authors of this era often more sexist than their male counterparts? Seems to me male crime writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s like their female love interests to be strong, sexy and a bit dangerous, while female authors make them clingy and pathetic. Maybe I just notice it more when it’s a female author who annoys me in this way.)

Margaret Millar

Some aspects of the plot are fairly easy to work out, but enough is held back to allow for a surprise at the end – a surprise that in truth seemed to me to lessen the general credibility up to that point, although not enough to lose me completely. It’s very well written, with the strength lying more in the characterisation than the plot. Overall, I preferred the only other Millar I’ve read to date, The Listening Walls, but I enjoyed this one enough to cement her in her place as an author I’d like to investigate further.

Amazon UK Link

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

Built for one thing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On the run after a prison-break, Tim Sunblade stops off in a cheap motel and hires himself a ten-dollar hooker. But when Virginia shows up, all lavender eyes and sinuous limbs and expensive scent, Tim sees she’s clearly used to a much classier trade. Next day he takes her along with him, telling himself he’ll drop her somewhere when he tires of her. But his fascination with her grows, to say nothing of his lust, and anyway he needs someone to help him with the big job he’s planning. Virginia has her own reasons to get away for a while and doesn’t object at all to the idea of getting rich, so Tim’s plan suits her just fine…

A noir thriller from 1953, apparently the book went out of print for many years and the difficulty of getting hold of it added to its aura as a cult classic. It’s now been back in print for a decade or so, and seems to be pleasing its new readership just as much as its reputation suggested. Noir sometimes works for me and sometimes not, so I was intrigued to give it a try at least, especially since the audiobook narrator, Malcolm Hillgartner, has also been highly praised.

Tim is our narrator and in true noir style we know from the beginning that his story is going to end badly. Virginia is the mystery that keeps the suspense going. Will she betray him, or will she share his downfall? The more time Tim spends with her, the more addicted to her he becomes – and it is an addiction, one he often wishes he could shake, but her looks, her sensuality, even her calculating coldness all exert a growing hold over him, so that he finds he can’t face losing her. But what of her? Is there a heart underneath her hard exterior? Does Tim mean anything to her or does she simply see him as a means to an end? Does she feel any of the lust and passion Tim feels for her, or is she just very good at her profession?

Elliott Chaze

This is undoubtedly noir, but not quite as pitch black as some. Tim has a heart and Virginia is ambiguous enough for us not to be sure till quite late on whether she has too. This gives it a kind of emotional warmth despite their actions – there’s not quite the level of amorality as there is in The Postman Always Rings Twice, for instance, which is way too dark for me. Although this pair are driven by lust and money, you kinda feel they’re both deeper than that – that perhaps there are reasons they are as they are. I found myself liking them both, despite everything, and that meant I was far more interested in their fate than if I’d wholeheartedly despised them. There’s a strong feeling that they are both emotionally affected by their actions too, that guilt may not be an altogether foreign emotion to either of them, which isn’t generally the case in the blackest noir, I think.

But it’s certainly noir in that there’s no hope of a happy ending, and the sense of impending tragedy grows strongly in the latter stages. We don’t know what the tragedy will be, exactly, but there’s a kind of inexorable quality to it, as if all things are fore-ordained, and once on the path there’s no way to turn off.

You’ve never heard a siren until you’ve heard one looking for you and you alone. Then you really hear it and know what it is and understand that the man who invented it was no man, but a fiend from hell who patched together certain sounds and blends of sounds in a way that would paralyze and sicken. You sit in your living room and hear a siren and it’s a small and lonesome thing and all it means to you is that you have to listen until it goes away. But when it is after you, it is the texture of the whole world. You will hear it until you die. It tears the guts out of you like a drill against a nerve and it moves into you and expands.

The writing is great, with rather more literary qualities than a lot of pulp noir – it has more depth of characterisation and a wider focus, so that we see the world these two live in rather than being laser-focused on their lust, greed and crimes, though all those aspects are there too.

I loved it – probably my favourite noir novel, though I admit I haven’t read a lot of the genre. I also loved Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration – he is completely believable as Tim and keeps the emotional level just right, relying on little changes in speed or emphasis to increase the tension as the story moves towards its wonderfully dark climax. And one last bit of praise – isn’t it a wonderful cover? Perfect for the story and the expression on the blonde’s face is exactly Virginia.

She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that.

Great book, great narration – highly recommended!

Audible UK Link (For UK Audible members, it’s included on APlus)

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

All that glitters…

😐 😐

When Philip Marlowe helps out a drunken Terry Lennox one night, it starts a kind of casual friendship between the two men. So when Lennox’s wife is beaten to death, it’s to Marlowe that he turns for help, not to investigate the crime, but to assist him to flee the country. Hearing later that Lennox has confessed to the murder, Marlowe doesn’t believe it – he can believe that Lennox might have killed his serially unfaithful wife, but not that he would have done it so brutally. Meantime, he has been approached by the publisher of Roger Wade, a successful writer now struggling with bouts of drunkenness which are making it impossible for him to finish his latest book. The publisher wants Marlowe to keep Wade sober, if he can, and to try to find out what is causing Wade to behave this way. Marlowe refuses, but soon gets sucked into Wade’s troubles anyway, partly because of Wade’s beautiful, golden wife.

This one didn’t do it for me at all, I’m afraid. Admittedly, it has several of the elements I most dislike about American noir fiction – the constant drunkenness, the casual violence, the ubiquitous Great God Gun at whose altar all America worships, apparently. The women exist purely as sexual beings, the men (despite the constant availability of women and drink – or maybe because of it) are all existentially miserable, corrupt and violent – even the good ones. Society as a whole is also corrupt, bleak and hollow. No one does a normal, honest job, or has a happy family life. Only old people have children, and that purely so they can despise them. Love only appears as lust, and even the fulfilment of that lust usually ends in tears, literally. Makes me wonder why anyone would choose to go on living and, indeed, one of the recurring themes of the book is suicide. Somehow this kind of depressing noir vision of life works quite well on screen for me, but not in books, maybe because I have too much time to get bored with it.

Book 68 of 90
CC Spin 24

As if specially to annoy me further, Chandler, obviously in autobiographical mood, chose for another of his themes to write about how hard it is for writers to write, a subject that writers too often find far more fascinating than I do. My feeling is that if writers hate writing, the solution is simple – don’t do it. The world will not run short of books. And fewer books about the plight of poor struggling writers would be a major bonus for poor struggling readers.

The writing itself is fine, though without the slick snappiness I generally expect from American noir of this era. I did not however find it as “literary” as many other reviews suggest. Of course, we all define “literary” differently, but for me it means it has something to say about society or “the human condition”. This speaks only about the drunk, the corrupt and the violent. Chandler suggests that his characters had often been damaged by their experiences in the recent WW2, but I didn’t find he handled this aspect convincingly – except in the case of one character, it seemed more like an excuse than a cause. Some of the descriptive stuff paints wonderfully evocative pictures, though…

The bar was filling up. A couple of streamlined demi-virgins went by caroling and waving. They knew the two hotshots in the booth farther on. The air began to be spattered with darlings and crimson fingernails.

Raymond Chandler

The biggest problem, though, is that the book is bloated to a degree where the actual story gets almost completely overwhelmed by the rather pointless padding, repetitive dialogue and occasional mini-essays on what Chandler feels is wrong with the world. I had to make a huge effort to keep going, in the hope, not fulfilled, that at some point the reason for the book’s reputation would become clear. I can only assume that it’s a mismatch between book and reader, since undoubtedly it is almost universally loved by those who read it. Personally, I vastly preferred The Big Sleep, the only other Chandler I’ve read. Although it’s a long time since I read it, I seem to remember it was tighter, slicker and more entertaining, with Marlowe operating as a proper private eye. In this one, the amount of actual detection Marlowe does is pretty much zero – he just gets caught up in events and wanders somewhat aimlessly around annoying people till they punch him. Sadly, I could see their point.

“I’ve got five hundred pages of typescript here, well over a hundred thousand words. My books run long. The public likes long books. The damn fool public thinks if there’s a lot of pages there must be a lot of gold.”

Not all of us, Mr Chandler, not all of us.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

Sex and death…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Frank Chambers is a bum who drifts from place to place, making a living out of gambling and petty cons. One day he finds himself at a garage outside Los Angeles without funds or a ride. He cons a meal out of the owner, a Greek by the name of Nick Papadikis. Nick’s looking for help around the place, so offers Frank a job. Frank’s about to refuse when he catches sight of Nick’s wife, Cora, a luscious brunette who oozes sensuality…

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Now Frank has a reason to stick around, and it’s not long before the lip-mashing commences. And soon Frank and Cora feel that two’s company.

My initial reaction to this novella was a feeling of disgust. Frank’s objectification and sexualised descriptions of Cora made me faintly nauseous, and their joint racism about Greeks and “Mex” and anyone else who might not be whiter than white didn’t help much. But then as I got to know Cora better I discovered she was just as revolting as Frank, so I acquitted Cain of misogyny and racism, and convicted him of misanthropy instead. And, oddly, once I reached that point, I found the book much easier to get along with.

….She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s – leave it locked.”
….“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.”
….I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers.
….“Bite me! Bite me!”
….I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

There’s no doubt it’s compellingly written in the true noir style. Reading it is a little like being held up on the motorway because there’s been a crash just ahead – you know you shouldn’t stare but you can’t help yourself. As a study of two amoral, self-obsessed monsters drawn to each other through lust, it’s brilliantly done. But, like Damien Hirst’s dead cow, can it really be considered art? I’ve mentioned more than once that I tend to judge literature on the basis of Flaubert’s famous quote:

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we long to move the stars to pity.

I could see the bears frantically dancing but the stars had all gone out. Maybe that’s why they call it noir. I’d call it a glamorisation of sado-masochism, except that it’s way too sordid to be glamorous. When our lovely heroes aren’t indulging in some vicious sex that seems to involve lots of bruising and blood – but it’s OK ‘cos Cora likes being hurt – then Frank’s beating people senseless…

….When he was half out the door I cut the juice in the sign, and it blazed down in his eyes. He wheeled, and I let him have it. He went down and I was on him. I twisted the gun out of his hand, threw it in the lunchroom, and socked him again. Then I dragged him inside and kicked the door shut. She was standing there. She had been at the door, listening, all the time.
….“Get the gun.”
….She picked it up and stood there. I pulled him to his feet, threw him over one of the tables, and bent him back. Then I beat him up. When he passed out, I got a glass of water and poured it on him. Soon as he came to, I beat him up again. When his face looked like raw beef, and he was blubbering like a kid in the last quarter of a football game, I quit.

And yet, oddly, despite their vicious callousness, they are two of the most incompetent murderers I’ve come across. Of course, that’s partly the point – it’s when the police and lawyers become involved that the story reaches its real moral dilemma – under pressure, will their love/lust for one another be enough to hold them together? When you know the bad, bad things your lover has done, can you ever trust him/her? Can you be sure that when he/she says he/she loves you that he/she really does and wasn’t just using you? And once the excitement of murder is over, how do you feel about the dullness of everyday life – does the passion last when you no longer have to sneak around and hide, when there’s nothing left to plot? This second half of the book is far more interesting than the sex-saturated first half – to me, at any rate.

Book 32 of 90

I don’t know how to rate it really. It’s undoubtedly superbly done so I admire it for that. I’m not the greatest fan of pure noir so haven’t read extensively in the genre, but the little I have read has usually given me one good guy to root for amid the gritty darkness, and a femme fatale who may behave badly but is morally ambiguous. This one gives two people with no redeeming features whatsoever, so that I could only hope things would end badly for them. Again, that’s the point, so it succeeds in its aim. I found it well written, psychologically convincing, and it creates a truly noir world in which everything is soiled and corrupt and no gleam of light beckons. But it left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind out with a Brillo pad. I’ve settled on four stars – compelling rather than enjoyable, but I can understand why it’s considered a classic.

This is my Classics Club Spin #18 book.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

the maltese falconLights, camera, action…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When luscious Miss Wonderly hires the detective firm of Spade and Archer to find her sister, who has run off with a man named Floyd Thursby, Sam Spade might not believe her story but he’s happy to accept the $200 dollars she pays them upfront. So is Miles Archer, though his interest is more in the lady’s lovely legs. The job turns out to be more than either partner bargains for though, when both Miles and then Floyd are shot dead. With Miss Wonderly begging for his help to protect her and find the Maltese Falcon of the title, Miles’ wife hoping his death means she and Sam can finally be together, and the police accusing him of murdering Floyd in revenge for Miles’ death, Spade is in trouble up to his neck. But nothing he can’t handle…

the maltese falcon 1

Did Dashiell Hammett invent noir? I don’t know, but Sam Spade is the earliest iconic noir detective, and the one that has spawned a zillion clones down the years. The book reads like a film, making it understandable why the film of the book works so well. Heavy on dialogue, the camera stays focused on Sam Spade at all times and yet we are never allowed inside his head. As he twists and lies and manoeuvres his way through the plot, the reader has no more idea than anyone else what his true intentions might be. Has he fallen for Miss Wonderly, aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy, or is he using her? Will he double-cross her and take the money offered by the mismatched baddies Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo? Or will he trick them all, and take the fabled golden bird for himself? It’s only as the end plays out that we discover whether Spade does have some kind of moral code hidden beneath his smooth chain-smoking exterior.

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

It’s a while since I watched the film, but it seems to me that the script stuck very closely to the book, and the casting was pretty much perfect. As a result, I could see the movie characters in my head while reading. It’s not just the dialogue that makes the book feel so filmic. Hammett describes every movement that Spade makes in minute detail, from the fight scenes to the rolling of his endless cigarettes, and it gave me the impression of an obsessive director’s notes on how he wanted his actors to play each scene. It also feels like a studio film – there’s very little description of the world outside and the San Francisco setting could really have been any city in America. It’s rare to have quite so little sense of place in a novel, and yet it works. Like a classy film-star, Spade is so compelling that the reader doesn’t need to have the background filled out, and the great supporting cast of eccentric characters provides all the necessary contrast to highlight Spade’s starring role.


I’ve seen lots of reviews comparing this book adversely to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. My preference is for this one. I found The Big Sleep messy plotwise, and the atmospheric writing didn’t fully compensate for that. The plot of this one is tight and controlled, with each twist revealed at the perfect moment, and while the language may not be poetic, it sets a distinctive tone. The device of keeping the reader outside the thoughts of the characters works very effectively – ultimately the real mystery is nothing to do with the falcon, or even who killed Miles. It’s about what will Spade do – who is he? He’s neither likeable nor particularly admirable, but the enigma that surrounds his moral code makes him intriguing and fascinating. The book is, of course, horribly misogynistic and homophobic, but it was written nearly a century ago (1929) so I graciously forgive it, especially since Hammett manages to tell his gritty, twisted, violent tale without the need for any offensive language.

Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: “Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but – well, by Gad! – if you lose a son it’s possible to get another – and there’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Orion have reissued this as part of a series they call ‘Read a Great Movie’ and I have to say that this, for me, was a perfect example of doing just that. I’ll be checking to see what else is in the series…


NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Strange Loyalties (Laidlaw Trilogy 3) by William McIlvanney

Moving the stars to pity…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

strange loyaltiesIn the third and, to date, last outing for Jack Laidlaw, he is grieving for the death of his brother, Scott. Although Scott’s death was accidental – he was knocked down by a car – Laidlaw believes that his brother’s state of mind played a major part in his death. And so as the story begins, he has taken some time off work to try to find out what had led Scott into the depression and heavy drinking that marred his final months. As he talks to the people who knew Scott best, Laidlaw finds there were things he never knew about his brother and begins to realise that the answers he is seeking may lie far back in Scott’s past…

Nobody had said ‘crime’. But that dying seemed to me as unjust, as indicative of meaninglessness as any I had known. And I had known many. For he had been so rich in potential, so much alive, so undeserving – aren’t we all? – of a meaningless death. I knew.

I should know. He was my brother.

The first book in the trilogy, Laidlaw, would certainly be in contention on any list I might draw up of best crime novels, possibly even best novels overall. The second, The Papers of Tony Veitch, came very close to matching it in quality. So for me, this one had a couple of hard acts to follow, and it was with some trepidation that I began to read. And, although this is undoubtedly an excellent novel in its own right, in truth it didn’t reach quite the same heights for me, though only by a small margin.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which is very much a matter of personal preference. The Laidlaw brothers grew up in Ayrshire so, unlike the previous books which were very firmly set in the Glasgow of my youth, this one takes place mainly away from the city. McIlvanney himself was an Ayrshire lad so for him the emotional connections are just as strong, perhaps stronger, but for me, there wasn’t the same resonance as in the other two. It also meant there was very little of McIlvanney’s wonderful use of Glasgow dialect which so enhanced the earlier books for me. The other reason is that this one is written in the first person from Laidlaw’s perspective, whilst the first two were third person. I found Laidlaw a more believable character seeing him from the outside, as it were. Being told his philosophical thoughts in his own voice meant I found that, just occasionally, he came over as a little pretentious.

William McIlvanney Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph
William McIlvanney
Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph

However, slightly less good from McIlvanney is still about a zillion times better than excellent from most authors, so I certainly wouldn’t want either of these quibbles to put anyone off reading this one. McIlvanney’s prose is wonderful – there is a poetic edge to it that makes the reading of it an intensely pleasurable and often emotional experience. I don’t usually use such longs quotes as this but I feel this gives a true flavour of the deep understanding and love of – pity for – humanity that pervades these books:

But, imagining Scott’s nights here, I populated the emptiness. This had been one of his places and some small part of his spirit had been left here. Holding my own brief séance for my brother, I conjured vivid faces and loud nights. I saw that smile of his, sudden as a sunray, when he loved what you were saying. I saw the strained expression when he felt you must agree with him and couldn’t get you to see that. I caught the way the laughter would light up his eyes when he was trying to suppress it. I heard the laughing when it broke. He must have had some nights here. He had lived with such intensity. The thought was my funeral for him. Who needed possessions and career and official achievements? Life was only in the living of it. How you act and what you are and what you do and how you be were the only substance. They didn’t last either. But while you were here, they made what light there was – the wick that threads the candle-grease of time. His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing.

His characterisation is superb – each person flawed but believably so, and he writes them with a sympathy that makes it hard for the reader to condemn. He is very much of the school that believes criminals are made, not born, and for his characters there is always the possibility of redemption. Some of the most moving scenes in this book are of a petty criminal back in Ayrshire to look after his dying mother in her last weeks. No McIlvanney character is black or white – they are all multi-shaded and multi-layered, and Laidlaw has the empathy to see them in the round. And it is Laidlaw’s empathy and understanding that makes these books special, because through him the reader is also brought to feel a sorrow and a pity for the way the world is.

One of my favourite quotes is Flaubert’s “Human language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity”. In this trilogy, McIlvanney’s writing surely moves the stars.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Papers of Tony Veitch (Laidlaw Trilogy 2) by William McIlvanney

A love letter to a city…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the papers of tony veitchTony Veitch has disappeared and it seems like half the city is looking for him. Laidlaw’s one of the searchers. He knows why he’s looking for Tony – his name’s come up in connection with Eck Adamson, a drunk and down-and-out, now dead; and it seems Laidlaw’s the only man who cares. But Laidlaw doesn’t know why some of Glasgow’s hardest men seem to be wanting to find Veitch too, and the question is – who’ll find him first?

After being stunned by the first in the trilogy, Laidlaw, I approached this with some caution, for fear it couldn’t match up. But it does. We’re back in Laidlaw’s world – a good man trying to make sense of the hard and violent world he inhabits, trying to find justice for the people left on the margins. He’s not a loner, exactly, but he stands a little apart from the world – an observer with a compassionate eye, a philosopher. He’s not a team player – how could anyone live up to the exacting standards he sets? Even he continually fails to be the man he’d like to be, and his self-awareness won’t let him hide from that.

One was young and pretty, made up as colourfully as a butterfly. The other was older. She had been pretty. Now she was better than that. She looked mid to late thirties and as if she hadn’t wasted the time. She had eyes that suggested you might find Ali Baba’s cave behind them, if you knew the password, and had managed to arrive before the Forty Thieves.

The language is wonderful. It slips in and out of dialect seamlessly and the dialogue catches the tone and patterns of Glaswegian speech in a way I’ve never come across before. I can hear these people speak – hear the humour and the bravado and the aggression. He shows beautifully the odd mix of the Glaswegian character, with its kindness that must always be kept carefully hidden for fear of seeming soft. His villains are frighteningly hard without ever tipping over into caricature, and the ever-present threat of violence is chillingly believable.

“Coulda made something o’ himself. But a luckless man. All his days a luckless man. The kinna man woulda got two complimentary tickets for the Titanic.” The unintentional humour of her remark was like her natural appetite for life reasserting itself. Harkness couldn’t stop smiling. It was as if Glasgow couldn’t shut the wryness of its mouth even at the edge of the grave.

The plotting is complex and takes a different direction than the reader is at first led to expect. Tony is from a privileged background, in the financial sense, though not perhaps in terms of love. But somehow he’s got himself mixed up with the underworld of gangs and hardmen and now his life seems to be in danger. As Laidlaw hunts for him, the reader gradually gets to see different aspects of Glaswegian society, from Tony’s rich, successful but cold father to the gangsters dispensing their own form of justice towards anyone they feel has betrayed them.


From his vantage point in Ruchill Park, Laidlaw looked out over the city. He could see so much of it from here and still it baffled him. ‘What is this place?’ he thought.

A small and great city, his mind answered. A city with its face against the wind. That made it grimace. But did it have to be so hard? Sometimes it felt so hard…It was a place so kind it would batter cruelty into the ground. And what circumstances kept giving it was cruelty. No wonder he loved it. It danced among its own debris. When Glasgow gave up, the world could call it a day.

William McIlvanney
William McIlvanney

But oddly, what this story is most about is love. The love of a sister for the brother who has fallen through life’s cracks into alcoholism and vagrancy. The love of a son which leads him to try to protect his parents from learning the truth about his brother. The love for a woman, which can lead a man to destroy his life. And most of all, the love of a city – the clear-sighted, complicated yet profound love that Laidlaw has for this place of contradictions where kindness and cruelty meet head-on. Glasgow, as the sum of its people good and bad, is the character that is at the heart of the book and McIlvanney makes us weep and rejoice for it in equal measure. A love letter from a man who sees the violence and darkness of the city, but also sees it as a place of courage and heart and humour – and ultimately integrity. A great book that gets my highest recommendation.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

One for Our Baby by John Sandrolini

one for our babyOl’ Blue Eyes is back…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Eight years ago, ex-fighter pilot Joe Buonomo saved Frank Sinatra’s life and they’ve been pals ever since. So when Frank needs to get his latest girlfriend to Hollywood in time for a screen test, he asks Joe to fly her up in his charter plane. No problem…until Frank’s Lilah turns out to be the girl Joe once was going to marry, only then she was called Helen. Love rekindled, Joe intends to tell Frank, but then Helen goes missing and Frank wants Joe to find her. John Sandrolini is an airline pilot in real life so planes play a fairly big role, and he uses his inside knowledge to make these sequences very convincing.

John Sandrolini
John Sandrolini

This book reads like a cross between a Bogart film and Die Hard. Joe starts out as Bogart but morphs into Bruce Willis and Ol’ Blue Eyes plays himself. Lilah/Helen is tough Bacall some of the time and vulnerable Bergman (Ingrid not Ingmar!) the rest. Set in 1960, it gives a real flavour of the films of that era with the slick-talking, ex-war-hero lead, a femme fatale and some very bad bad-guys. (I wanted the main villain to be Edward G. Robinson but he just wouldn’t fit –Bronson, maybe? I found a bit part for Edward G. as the Mafia boss, though.)

Noiresque rather than completely noir, this is an all-action shoot-em-up with Joe facing off against a constant stream of baddies coming at him from every direction. As if it isn’t bad enough that a Mexican porn king has kidnapped his baby, the mysterious Chinese Ching Hwas are also out to get Joe. And that’s without Frank ‘helping’ by bringing his Mafia contacts on board. Throw in some corrupt politicians and a lot of betrayal and Joe’s really not having a good week. Fortunately, in the best action-fest tradition, he’s pretty much superhuman so the occasional gunshot wound, beating or airplane crash might delay him for a moment but won’t stop him.

frank sinatraJoe’s character is well developed and likeable, very much in the mould of John McClane. At one point the author gives a direct wink towards the Die Hard movies so the resemblance is obviously intentional and works well. Sinatra is the off-screen version – the friend of mobsters and politicians – and the author successfully pulls off the sometimes difficult task of using a real-life personality. The book is well written and for the most part sticks very well to the time period with only an occasional anachronism. I wondered throughout why the occasional swearing was bothering me and eventually realised that, while no doubt it happened in reality (and certainly in Die Hard!), it really didn’t happen in action films of the early 60s; so it somehow sounded incongruous in this book, which reads very much like watching a film. I don’t mean that it reads likes a screenplay, just that it is so firmly sited in the cinema tradition and of course located partly in Hollywood, that it feels filmic.

For my taste, the book was too long – I felt several of the action sequences could have been cut and there would still have been plenty left. I also felt the whole Chinese thing was an unnecessary complication that didn’t really fit in too well with the rest of the story. But these criticisms aside, I found this an enjoyable read overall, well constructed with a strong and believable central plot, and sure to please anyone who likes fast-paced, gun-toting action and adventure. And a fabulous excuse to listen to the King of Swing…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Dark and Broken Heart by RJ Ellory

a dark and broken heartThrilling Noir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This was the winner of the FictionFan Award* for Best Noir Thriller of 2012. Fabulously well written, dark and twisted, the reader is carried into Vincent Madigan’s life as he struggles to find a way out of the tangled and dangerous mess he has made of his life.

An anti-hero of epic proportions, we know from the beginning that he is surely irredeemably bad. No-one could be forgiven for the crimes he has committed, the vicious things he has done. And yet…and yet, as we get to know him, we find empathy for him as the author brilliantly plays with questions of morality and ethics. Madigan makes no excuses for himself; he accepts responsibility for every criminal and violent act he has committed, blames himself for the break-ups of his marriages and for losing touch with his children. But inside this man beats the dark and broken heart of the title and the reader – at least, this reader – can’t help but see the good man he might so easily have been…and might still be. The author manipulates the reader so skilfully that I was left uneasy at how much I wanted Madigan to win through despite knowing his history. It reminded me a bit of how I felt about the awful but oddly likeable Patrick of American Psycho, but where that was blackly comic, this is true thrilling noir.

RJ Ellory(source:
RJ Ellory

I have deliberately not given a synopsis of the plot since it is so complex and has so many twists that I fear even a simple outline could lead to unintentional spoilers. But after the first couple of violent chapters, the reader is blasted by the first breath-taking twist and from there on is swept into an ever-shifting, ever more threatening world where good and bad become so blurred that they are eventually almost impossible to tell apart. This is a superbly told and completely compelling roller coaster of a story – bleak, often violent, but never without the possibility of redemption.
Highly recommended.

*The prize for the prestigious FictionFan Award is that I guarantee to read the author’s next book 🙂 – which in this case apparently will be The Devil and the River due to be published in June 2013. Can’t wait!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link