David Malcolm’s The German Messenger, a melancholy spy novel set in the UK during the First World War, is as foggy and moody as its cover suggests. Its protagonist, Harry Draffen happens upon an intrigue involving his opposites on the German side, who aim to land on the British coast and deliver a message. What that message is confuses Harry and his associates, unsure whether it will harm Britain or shorten the disastrous war which has embittered him.
This is a beautifully written novel with a mood which pulls you right in and demands you light a fire and pour some spirits down your neck. It’s an atmospheric tour of the UK from dowdy East End slums to isolated Scottish villages as Harry and his men, Andresj and McLeish hunt down the German Messenger, spilling blood and escaping dodgy predicaments by the skin of their teeth.
You might need a history refresher on what early twentieth century Europe looked like, and how ethnic tensions fizzed and exploded in the old empires, but it won’t distract from the story’s main thread.
The book is more in the Le Carre mould than crash, bang, wallop, and explores the tensions within Britain as much as those in Europe. Draffen and McLeish are Scotsmen, “bag-carriers for the English,” and that bitterness bursts out at times, often on Britain’s enemies. It gives the novel an extra level of welcome confused loyalties in a horribly complex Europe.
If you like a moody spy thriller which is more interested in procedural investigation, philosophy, and the complexities of the European and especially inter-British mindset, you can’t go wrong here.
Keith Nixon’s Dig Two Graves is a dark and very enjoyable character study. Solomon Gray is a copper whose life has been put on hold since his son went missing ten years ago at a fairground. In the present is a sixteen year old whose been murdered, and he has Gray’s number on his phone.
From there, Gray is on the hunt for the murderer, complicated by bodies piling up around him. The blame seems to point at him.
The book is more about Gray than the actual murders, and I’m fine with that. I love a dark protagonist and Gray’s life is as storm-ridden as any. He doesn’t know if his son is dead or alive. He doesn’t know if the sixteen year old is his son, though his age pings all possibilities around his racked mind. His wife, Kate, committed suicide in the aftermath of her son’s disappearance, and Gray has a non-relationship with his other child, a daughter.
On top of all that he has to deal with religious busy-body, Alice, who encouraged Kate’s faith, aggressive colleagues, and the possibility of new, complicated love. When the screw is turned you want to swig some of that whisky he throws down his neck.
When the screw turns, I did question Gray’s character. After one particular murder I wanted to bash him over the head with that whisky bottle for not being clear with the police – it felt out of place.
But, if you like mood, setting, and a great character to set your teeth into, this is a classy read.
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The Guns of Brixton is a mutt, bred from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Pulp Fiction, The Sweeney, and the Carry On films. All of this could have been a mushy stew, but Brazill has such a way with words and structure that this is all its own thing. It’s funny, as his books always are, extremely silly, but utterly engaging.
It starts with Big Jim and his accidental killing of Half-pint Harry. They head off to a robbery wearing women’s clothes. Lynne and George have some work boredom to alleviate, and the priest has issues to discuss over food.
After a near car crash, one character, Richard, is about to call the cops when the other car’s inhabitant puts a gun to his head and forces him to drive them away:
“Shit, thought Richard, as he heard the approaching sirens screaming in the distance, why the hell not? It couldn’t be any worse than Camilla’s party.”
Here’s a bunch of criminals and other dodgy characters who revel in their strange, comical lives, and they drag you through their grim lives with a smile smudged across your face.
There’s a whole bunch of viewpoints in the novella, all living disconnected lives from each other. How do they come together? Comically, that’s how.
Brazill’s novella isn’t a massive read, but it’s a good ‘un.
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It shouldn’t work. The title of the book ought to apply to the reader and annoy the hell out of you, but Ryan Bracha’s Phoebe Jeebies and the Man Who Annoyed Everybody is a cracking book with the sweetest heroine. The Man Who Annoyed Everybody is Tony, an Annoyance Officer who works for a rich brat who wants to cause annoyance to the general public for kicks and laughs. Tony’s good at it. He relishes the job, and recruits others to the cause. But when Phoebe comes into his life, it changes his whole outlook on life and forces him to confront his past.
Bracha is not afraid to make you hate a character (Tony), but, as he did in After Call Work: Verbal Warning, he challenges that hate, twists it, makes you like him/her, slaps you back into despising him, and challenges you all over again. Tony will ruin movies for others at the pictures, cause havoc in the self-publishing book industry, and take joy from his activities. But Phoebe is such a sweetheart, she thaws that cold heart of his.
The danger in such a premise is that Phoebe could be nothing more than a cypher. An object of his love, who he dotes on for no reason than she’s a woman providing a plot point to transform him. But Phoebe pops from the page with her smarts and sharp questioning of Tony’s life and purpose. She has flaws, motives, a past all her own, and you fall in love with her along with Tony.
It’s a book which will make your teeth grind at times (from Tony’s actions), and I think that is intentional. The ending is wild and a little sudden, but the joy is in the characters. Bracha is reminding me, at a weirder level, of Iain Banks – in that it’s not so much the plot which matters (fun as that is), but the company of great characters.
A top read.
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Bullets, Teeth, & Fists 2 is FREE from 1-5 May 2017. The thing is populated by good lads, bad lads, nutters, and quite a few deaths. There’s the one about the bored cop who needs to create an exciting story to tell his pal. Another about a social wallflower who blossoms on the tube train when he faces a skinhead with an attitude. And the one about the robber who heists a Saudi royal’s London convoy to pay for a hitman to kill his sister’s man is a rollercoaster.