Friday, 28 September 2012

A Review of JUDAS PIG by Horace Silver

I don’t think I have ever read a book which contains such a constant, rising flood of expletive-laden anger. Its ‘f’ words and its ‘c’ words are embedded in almost every snatch of dialogue and in pretty well every line of gangster Billy Abrahams’ narrative. Your granny won’t like it, I’m certain of that. And it’s not just the language she’ll reject. Where, she’ll ask, is the remotest sign of decency in the people on show here?

There is scarcely a redeeming feature in any of the characters in this ultra-violent tale of London’s East End mob. There is no-one for whom you’re going to feel any warmth: scarcely anyone for whom you’ll feel the slightest grain of sympathy.

This is a grim story peopled with cruel, vicious, unfeeling men and women. They drink to excess, they sniff up ‘lines’ to excess, they kill to excess. And only Billy, brighter than the others, with sharper insight, fleetingly wonders where it’s all leading but even he can shuffle off his doubts if the money is right.

So where are the gangsters with hearts of gold? Where are the guys on the wrong side of the law with some faint memory of loyalty and friendship. Where are the loveable hard men? Don’t look for them here. Not in Judas Pig.

Is this then what they are really like, the lawbreakers?  Well, Horace Silver, the author, was for many years a senior member of a major London firm. So he ought to know. Now he’s given up the gun, the knife, the baseball bat, for the life of a writer. But his portrayal of gangsterdom is light years away from the cosy images of real criminals which we have been offered so generously in recent years. And I fear that this is what many of our gangsters really must be like. But they give to charity, don’t they?  And aren’t they loved in the East End? Yes, on both counts, Billy Abrahams tells us. And that’s because those who adore these low-life hard men are suckers just like the rest of us poor nine-to-five punters. They wouldn’t feel the same if they hadn’t been led to believe the creepy, romantic Robin Hood version of duplicitous lives steeped in squalid, venomous dealings. 

Grim reading, expressed with a crude power, at times poetic almost, yet always down among the dregs, and probably nearer the truth than most of the fact or fiction gangsters we’ve been regaled with over the years.

I loved it.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Review of The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

It must be my age. I keep coming back to books I read so long ago. This time I’ve had another go The Great Gatsby. Such a time since I looked at it that I could recall only one incident and there are in fact, as far as I can see, only two dramatic incidents in the whole book. I find that I’m still rather lukewarm about the characters. I recognise that Fitzgerald was portraying a kind of frenetic world-weariness and that so many of his players are quite deliberately portrayed as frivolous and shallow. Even so, could he not have made them live a shade more convincingly?

Gatsby himself ought to stand out as a tragic figure, a great lost romantic hero, a man of significantly mysterious background. But he’s not strongly enough etched for that kind of role. I wanted more Heathcliff in his personality, more dash. After all he’s linked to Wolfshiem, the man who fixed the World Series in 1919. You don’t think a gangster like Wolfshiem – in real life, Arnold Rothstein - was going to take on such a limp figure as one of his main men, do you? He is a major crime figure and so by implication is Gatsby.

As for the women I had feelings for only Daisy Buchanan and poor Myrtle Wilson, the latter no more than a bit player who is to have a powerful effect on how the story will ultimately turn out.

And that’s it. Or at least, that’s nearly it, for what raises the novel above the average is Fitzgerald’s wonderful capacity for summoning up atmosphere, the mood of place and the essence, the very feel of time, of bracing mornings, of heavy humid afternoons and the calm of evenings. His descriptions are really outstanding, not just Gatsby’s palace or the Buchanans’ ‘cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay’ but Nick Carraway’s ‘weatherbeaten cardboard bungalow’ in West Egg and Wilson’s down-at-heel garage. But best of all is Fitzgerald’s calling up of that desolate area of land, ‘a ‘valley of the ashes’, its ugly sense of being set in a kind of no-man’s-land between Gatsby’s Xanadu and New York where the book’s cataclysmic event will take place.

So did I enjoy it, this second reading, so many years from my first foray?

Frankly I did and that in spite of all my reservations.  That I should enjoy a book whose characters in the main failed to move me is odd.

It is odd, don’t you agree?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012


LAWLESS by Matt Bondurant
Some people have all the luck: they have fathers, grandfathers, uncles, all of whom have a back-story, something to talk about down the years, something out of which a writer can make a really good story.
Not me. I seem to have come from an endless line of people who didn’t raise the dust, didn’t make a headline. Except once, when I was about eight, and I heard my mother and father talking. My father was in trouble with the police. It was in the papers. He had been fined 5 shillings for a parking offence. That and my three speeding offences – and oh yes, a careless driving – is all we seem to have amassed as a family. Not much story in any of that.
Yet Matt Bondurant got a hint when he was into middle age that there was a story, something about his family. And though, save for newspapers, the documentary evidence was thin and the majority of those alive in the 1920s and 1930s had either passed on or forgotten the events of the time, he has managed to squeeze out a narrative from what he can find. And where there’s nothing, he’s added his own interpretation, and has made a novel out of the rags and tatters of his own family’s history. His grandfather and his two great uncles are the major figures in this violent tale.
‘Lawless’ is a story about Prohibition and its companion the Great Depression. We know all about Prohibition from all the gangster stories that have been written or filmed: we know about Capone and the Mob in all the great cities.
But at this time, over in Virginia, in a poverty stricken rural landscape where perhaps for all time past there had been a Great Depression, up in the mountain valleys with their cold running springs, the illicit manufacture of ‘moonshine’ – whisky from the grain, brandy from the fruit - which had gone on for perhaps a hundred years, perhaps even longer, now blossomed into a major industry though it continued to be manufactured in quite simple fashion.
And like many other farming folk, the Bondurant boys, Forrest the eldest, Howard, returned from the war, and young Jack, have stills running and they’re producing White Lightning or White Mule Moon or Stump Whisky or Mountain Dew or Squirrel Whisky – or maybe all of them at one time.
But there is great money involved in all of this - there is a suggestion that ninety per cent of families in Franklin County were in some way involved in the trade – so that now senior officers in the local county administration – the County Attorney and the Sheriff - decide to have their share of it, imposing a tax on the stills, demanding a tax for the shipment of the liquor, destroying the stills of non-payers and relentlessly pursuing those shipping their wares. Ruthless? Men are shot, beaten, emasculated, their testicles placed in a jar. Decidedly ruthless.
Some have objected that the story line is obscure at times when the author hops from one year to another. True. You have to concentrate. And some are unhappy about the intrusion of the writer Sherwood Anderson into the story’s flow. He came down to Franklin County in 1934 to find out about what was then known as The Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy. I’m sympathetic to a degree with these critics.
Yet I cannot deny that this may some day come to be regarded as a great novel. The reader has a lot of work to do. He cannot easily skim Mr Bondurant’s narrative. He needs to take time, to ponder it and enjoy its lyrical qualities which so uplift this book. Descriptions of newly distilled liquor; of the workings of a rural sawmill; of a frost-wrinkled land; of whole tobacco drills wilting in a savage summer heat; of lean men and women, poor but stoical – all of these elegantly expressed images, make for a book to return to.
I greatly admire ’Lawless.’

Sunday, 5 August 2012


Pittsburg Landing is a story of that historical tragedy, the American Civil War, and in particular it deals with the few weeks leading up to the obscene butchery at the place alternatively named Shiloh, the ‘place of peace.’

Mr Clark has done his research into the havoc of Pittsburg Landing so well though he is fortunate that the great battle which occurs at the culmination of his tale has been so richly recorded. But this in itself may be a potential danger to a novelist who must beware not simply to catalogue the material of others, must not merely catalogue the obscenities of war. He must go deeper and plunge his characters into the heart of his murderous matter and this Clark does quite splendidly and movingly.    

The author manoeuvres his main characters skilfully, some from the Union side, others from the Confederacy, to the point where, all strangers to each other, they are opposed in a horrific onslaught which will lead to 23,000 casualties. Some of these are officers, others bewildered boys; there is a man seeking his very young son who has run off to support the cause and a wife who follows her husband to the front. Some survive: others do not. But the author in the course of his narrative makes us care about each of them.

This may be a story about the war between the States though Clark takes no political stance. His view seems to be that whether a war is justifiable or not some involved at the hot steel end will demonstrate courage and nobility but that even those virtues will not save them. For others such noise, such turbulence, such sights are likely to be imprinted on their very souls for the rest of their days.

This is a very well told account of war and I found the final chapters riveting.

Thursday, 19 July 2012


Anyone like to review an early 19thC crime story, WINTER HUNT by Allen Makepeace (that's me, folks!)?  You can sample it on Amazon: if you wish to continue, contact me via where it's featured and I'll send you a pdf
And that's all this time.

Sunday, 15 July 2012


I’ll tell you what I was going to say when I finished this book, my first Martina Cole gangland novel. I had it in mind to muse on the fact that she is a best-selling author, that she certainly knows the world of crime and criminals and that she is without any doubt a compelling story teller. Dangerous Lady absolutely zips along and the reader is drawn into a gripping crime story, a crime saga, dealing as it does with the Ryans, an East End criminal family, over a period of thirty years. It’s a tale of protection rackets, grubby London clubs, gold bullion robberies, violent characters, brutal killings and a most determined and ruthless woman who might never have turned to crime had it not been for sad chance.

Then, having told you what a splendid tale-teller Ms Cole is, I was going to say that she’s not a great writer. Can that be so? Does it make sense? I think it does. Her prose style is clumsy, undeveloped, and her dialogue is wooden. And yet, despite these drawbacks, her story is undeniably riveting.

Well, that’s what I was going to say (yes, I know, I’ve said it) until I thought I’d just check up some background details and I discovered that this was her first book,  written when she was only twenty, that she finished it and locked it away in a cupboard for a couple of years. Then, it seems, that quite by chance she came across it and decided to send it to an agent. Seems an unconvincing tale, a bit too romantic and totally unconvincing, but that’s where she set off on her path to fame and the book was an instant best-seller. And more best sellers followed, four of them made into outstanding television serials.

So, I think I ought to hold back in my judgement and read more of Ms Cole’s work. And I have to say that I’m really looking forward to doing so.  

 In the meantime, I’m looking in the cupboard at home because I fancy I put a really great story in there several years ago.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Review of Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

I wish that I'd been able to finish this story. It's always a problem when you face a book that is acknowledged as a significant work and then find that you somehow cannot get into it. 
I couldn't identify with any of the characters but if the plot had been plausible it might have carried me along. But alas it wasn't so. At least not to me.
It's times like this when I have considered going with the flow rather than be branded a yahoo. I don't know: do other readers feel under some pressure to admire or to claim to enjoy highly praised books? Do other readers sometimes ask themselves, What's wrong with me that I cannot appreciate a work which so highly regarded? Are my literary taste buds less refined than others'? Maybe that's it.
Try as I might I really have found this book totally unappealing.