Take a Shot: Luke Block on The Ultras, Eoin McNamee

Like good friends and lovers, some books just find you at the right time and when you need them the most. I found The Ultras, a brutal 2004 novel by the Irish writer Eoin McNamee, in a battered and dusty second hand bookstore in my hometown of Gravesend. Sitting alongside the Grisham and the Rankin and the Cornwell, it stood out with its distinctive cover – the burnt out car, corpse-like rotting on the side of a country lane. I had never heard of the author and the blurb wasn’t typical of the thriller genre. It felt much more real.

At the time I was struggling with my first book and I needed something other than the usual crime fiction. A book that would disrupt my routine, challenge me, give me something to take a shot at. This book, coming out of a junk shop on the bad side of town, hit my writing nerves like a shot of pure adrenaline.

The Ultras is loosely-based on fact. During the 1970s the British government was engaged in a war of attrition on the streets of Belfast. Police, soldiers, paramilitaries all spinning webs and setting traps. During this ‘dirty war’ a British soldier named Robert Nairac was killed, supposedly by the IRA, on a dark and miserable night in 1977. Nairac was alleged to be an undercover member of the Special Air Service and there still remains great mystery about his role in the Troubles, including the manner of his death in the woods of County Louth. McNamee uses the violent murder of Nairac, and the subsequent police investigation, to base his story upon.  Who can be trusted in a world where there are no boundaries? The police and the government are a violent cartel and offer us no moral centre. McNamee himself gives us no answers and no security – all of his characters are low-lifers that exist in the shadows, in the smoky corridors of police stations and among the battered population. Everyone is looking over their shoulder and, as the book progresses, we’re drawn further into a noir-tinged world of sad-eyed hookers that are trained as spies. Men boasting and fighting in pubs. The army beating down on a population living in siege warfare conditions.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the police and the army are encouraging and supporting Loyalist paramilitary gangs – the so-called Ultras. This is now a civil war with Nairac emerging as a martyr figure. His body is never found and thus takes on the status of icon.

McNamee’s prose is beautifully stark, even poetic at times, and yet he retains a brutal edge. Especially in the scenes of ultra-violence and menace. Teenagers are shot by high-velocity rifles and maimed from shotgun kneecappings. Brutal punishments involve dogs, ropes and iron bars. The police and the army watch it all from the safety of bullet-proof glass.

The Ultras came at the right time for me and changed the way I write. Now I want my characters to be caught in the moral maze, I want the good guys to go bad at the drop of a bribe. I want to push my plots into different and interesting places.

Like good friends and lovers, The Ultras came into my writing life at just the right time and changed it for the better.

Take a Shot: Ed Kurtz on Death of a Red Heroine, Qiu Xiaolong

While recently browsing a local bookstore with some time to kill, I came upon a display of paperbacks from independent New York-based publisher Soho Crime. I was quick to realize that their line consists entirely of “international mysteries,” meaning crime tales that largely take place outside of the U.S., and the first of the lot to jump out at me was Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. Due to my vague and generally unfocused interest in things Chinese—relegated largely to Hong Kong kung fu and action pictures—I was intrigued by the premise of a Shanghai police inspector trying to solve a murder case in early 1990s China, a time of confusing socioeconomic restructuring and high tensions in the wake of Tiananmen Square. I bought the book, devoured it quickly, and am now working on the third in the ongoing series.

In Death of a Red Heroine, Chief Inspector Chen Cao is assigned the case of a body found in a remote canal, who is revealed to be something of a socialist celebrity—a model worker often lauded in the state press. When evidence points to an “HCC”, a high cadre’s child, Chen experiences as much pressure to drop the case as he does to solve it. Xiaolong is Shanhaiese himself and, like Chen, a poet and translator who has resided in St. Louis (home of his favorite Western poet, T.S. Eliot) since coming under undue scrutiny from the Chinese government. Accordingly, there is much in Death of a Red Heroine that comes off as semiautobiographical, and since Xiaolong writes in English for a Western audience, the book presents a tantalizing mystery wrapped in a salient criticism of the sociopolitical conditions Chinese people have faced from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to Deng Xiaoping’s later, quasi-capitalist proclamation to “let some get rich first.”

It has been noted elsewhere the real main character of Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series is China itself, and Shanghai in particular. One need not enter into the novel with a scholarly familiarity with the conditions Xiaolong addresses herein, yet he is masterful in the way he weaves social commentary into Chen’s tense struggle to see justice served without losing face and, potentially, political stability. The Chief Inspector already walks a fine line due to his secondary career as a modernist poet, a politically ambiguous profession that could be used against him at any time should he step out of place. Fortunately for Chen, he develops a network of contacts throughout the city—from a successful restaurateur to a retired cop to triad-connected nightclub owner—who assist him every step of the way lest he get too much dirt on his hands. It makes for a diverse and complex cast of characters from every walk of Shanghaiese life and sets up a satisfying series that feels familiar and comfortable by the time the reader opens A Loyal Character Dancer, the second book in the series.

Inspector Chen moved on from Soho Crime after the third book, When Red is Black; the series moved then to Minotaur Books, who released the seventh entry, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, last May.  Nonetheless, I intend to keep a close eye on Soho Crime even as I rocket through the remaining Chen novels. Scandinavians aren’t the only ones producing top notch crime fiction these days.

Take a Shot: Elizabeth A. White on Jack Kerley

I’ve been meaning for the longest time to write up a post about criminally unknown (in the US at least) thriller author Jack Kerley, but something always seemed to get in the way. So, when Ron and the gang at Shotgun Honey asked if I was interested in doing a post for their new Wednesday feature I figured I should take that as a sign to finally get it in gear.

Jack Kerley, also billed as J.A. Kerley, writes a series set in Mobile, Alabama featuring Detectives Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus. The first three books in the series (The Hundredth Man, The Death Collectors, and A Garden of Vipers) were published in the US to overwhelmingly positive critical reviews, they received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist, yet for some reason the series never really gained a toe-hold with American readers. Readers in the UK and Australia were more welcoming and the series, which recently saw the publication of its eighth entry (Her Last Scream), is a bestseller in those countries. It’s also been translated into ten languages and published in over twenty countries, with The Death Collectors even being voted “Best Foreign Mystery of the Decade” in Japan.

Detectives Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus are the sum total of the Mobile Police Department’s Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team (PSIT), which is sarcastically referred to as “Piss-it” by other members of the force. Ryder is the younger of the two, and much of the team’s chemistry comes from the interplay between his tendencies to be impulsive versus the older, more experienced Nautilus’s reflective, even-keeled approach to both policing and life in general. Though they are first and foremost regular detectives on the force, they are specifically the “go to” duo when a case comes along which demonstrates extreme violence, ritualistic aspects, or appears to be part of a pattern of crimes.

One of the things that makes the team so successful, but which Carson has gone to great lengths – including changing his name and purging family records – to hide from the world, is the fact Carson’s brother is himself a notorious, imprisoned serial killer from whom Carson is able to gain insight about the cases he works. Yes, immediately and unavoidably Hannibal Lecter springs to mind. And while there are inarguably some surface similarities, Kerley has done well to distinguish Carson’s brother, Jeremy Ridgecliff, from Thomas Harris’s well-known character. Most notably, the fact the two are brothers adds a unique nuance to the give and take between them; this isn’t merely a random investigator sterilely picking the brain of a caged monster. They share family, blood, and secrets.

Kerley’s descriptions of Mobile, Alabama are atmospheric and evocative, and he makes full use of both the beautiful and occasionally unforgiving geography that is the Gulf Coast region of the US. Hot, muggy, and prone to spit out massive storms at a moment’s notice, the mercurial weather is as much a character in the books as the detectives themselves. As far as the characters go, from the leads to the bit players they are all well-drawn and believable, with both the cops and killers at times demonstrating appropriately macabre senses of humor. And while the crime scenes are quite descriptive and some may be a bit too grisly for the more faint of heart, it is worth noting that Kerley’s criminals are equal opportunity offenders. The victims throughout the series don’t read strictly like a list of contestants in a Miss America pageant, but actually reflect a cross-section of the population. In short, the series is wonderfully balanced, hits all the right notes, and is one you should be reading if you’re not already.

The complete Carson Ryder / Harry Nautilus series is:

The Hundredth Man
The Death Collectors
A Garden of Vipers (titled Broken Souls in the UK)
Blood Brother
In the Blood
Little Girls Lost
Buried Alive
Her Last Scream

Kindle versions of some of the books, including the first in the series, are available on Amazon, and hard copies of all the books in the series can be ordered in the US though the outstanding indie bookstore Murder by the Book. To learn more about Jack Kerley, visit his website: http://www.jackkerley.com/

Thanks to the crew at Shotgun Honey for giving  me a chance to ramble about one of my favorite, unknown authors. I do hope you’ll check his work out.