Read Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews Online

Authors: John Grant

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Reference, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #History & Criticism, #Criticism & Theory

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Nemesis

by Vincent Cobb

M-Y Books, 304 pages, paperback, 2007

Several years ago in the English Midlands, trainee police recruit Angela Crossley, still not quite out of her teens, was in on the culmination of a pedophile case. Some unknown had been abducting, raping and savagely murdering young girls. The killing might have gone on indefinitely had it not been that the mother of a pre-adolescent girl called Connie came to the police with the astonishing claim that her daughter was psychic and could help them. Angela, deputed to go through the motions with this obvious nutcase, was convinced despite herself, and sure enough Connie was able to guide the cops to the derelict site where the murderer had been dumping all the pathetic little corpses. Although the murderer was not apprehended, the discovery had the effect of getting him – at least so everyone hoped – to clear off into another part of the country. However, police insensitivity to Connie at the time of the gruesome discovery drove the girl into mental collapse ... and ever since she has been under psychiatric care. Her psychic abilities seem to have been scoured out of her by the experience.

Because of guilt or perhaps something more than that, Angela has been a regular visitor to Connie in the psychiatric hospital, and the two young women have become friends. Now it seems that Connie, her exploitative mother dead, may soon be well enough to attempt a return to the outside world, and of course Angela is keen to help her. Yet what neither of them could have predicted is that the pedophile psychopath has chosen this moment to return to the Midlands, here to renew his campaign of rape and slaughter ...

The writing style of
Nemesis
could hardly be more out of tune with the 21st-century American mode. This is not simply because it's a (first) novel by a British writer, set in Britain. Even in that country the style is an anachronism: ponderous, somewhat wandering, definitely amateurish. I was reminded of nothing more than the many hardback mystery novels issued by the leading British mystery publisher Gollancz in uniform yellow covers during the 1960s and 1970s. (Gollancz's books were also habitually packed with typos and questionable grammar, not to mention even misspellings. Presumably inadvertently, Cobb and his publisher have managed this further level of verisimilitude.) Many of the Gollancz mysteries were as slickly written as anything you'd find elsewhere, but a good many were not. That's not to say they were in any way
bad
: they simply harked back to a yet earlier age, the 1940s or so.

The amateurishness of the telling of
Nemesis
thus works for me in a way it may not work for others. First, the clumsiness of the writing reinforces the impression that we're reading not a novelist's artifice but the genuine record written by Angela, a bright but not especially bookish cop. And second, of course, the whole time I was reading
Nemesis
I was, as a Brit of A Certain Age, bathing in a warm pool of nostalgia.

In short,
Nemesis
has a very good tale to tell, but you may be significantly offput by the telling. It's very much a case of
caveat lector
. Me, I think you'd find this book worth the gamble.

—Crescent Blues

Tempter

by Nancy A. Collins

Gauntlet, 222 pages, hardback, 2001; reissue of a book originally published in 1990

Nancy Collins made her name – and added a phrase to dark fantasy's vocabulary – with her first novel,
Sunglasses After Dark
(1989), a tale of chic, urbanized vampires. Her second novel followed in short order:
Tempter
(1990). This book received much less attention, being generally regarded as more of the same, but with voodoo added somewhat discordantly to the vampiric mix. What was unknown to readers back in 1990 was that the vampires in the tale had been added only at the behest of Collins's publishers, who were eager to groom their newly discovered author as "the next Anne Rice". For this new edition Collins has not only taken the vampires back out again but also rewritten almost every sentence in the novel in some way, great or small.

Although it was not rated very highly at the time,
Tempter
was in its initial form a pretty fair novel. (I know this, because it's among the small percentage of novels I chose to bring with me when I emigrated from the UK to the US.) It is now better than that. A mark of how much better is that this reviewer read it in the form of an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) so littered with typographical errors that in the ordinary way he would have found it impossible to continue for more than a couple of dozen pages because of the constant distraction, yet he not only finished the book but found it gripping.*

[* 2011 note: The text was apparently very thoroughly proofread preparatory to final publication.]

The tale is set in New Orleans. Alex Rossiter is a has-been rock star making efforts to restart his career, although hampered in this by the urgings of his testosterone. He experiments with voodoo (or, as we're told, more correctly "voudou") in the hope that the voudou gods will aid his career. Penis-guided as always, he ends up in bed with the beautiful mambo, Ti, who danced at his initiation ceremony. From her he borrows and then purloins a grimoire called
The Aegrosomnia
, a collection of blood-sacrifice-requiring spells which, we later discover, were those used by a vicious plantation-owner, Donatien Legendre, in a bid to bring himself physical immortality. Luckily Legendre was thwarted by a slave-girl/voudou
mamalewe
whom he'd raped, Jazrel, but his evil soul, now known as Il-Qui-Tente ("Tempter"), lingers on in the remains of his mansion, Seraphine, aching for a route back into the world of mortals ...

Which route it discovers through Alex Rossiter.

Other characters involved in what becomes a fairly complex plot include Charlie, a beautiful yuppie with a propensity for falling in love with ghastly men; Jere, the not-very-successful artist who for years has loved Charlie but whom she regards only platonically; Arsine, a member of Rossiter's new band; and Mad Aggie, an ancient who peddles voudou paraphernalia that everyone believes, wrongly, to be just tourist-fleecers. The strongest and best depicted of all these characters are quite noticeably the black ones – Ti, Arsine and Aggie.

A further complication of the plot arises – indeed, several, interrelated further complications – because none of these characters can be guaranteed to be the normal human beings they seem to be; they may instead be the physical incarnations of immortal souls that can emerge on occasion to dominate the temporal spirit of the individual concerned. On occasion this causes Collins some difficulties in presenting her material; most of the time she copes very well with the challenge, but there are scenes involving two separate entities, one called Alex and the other Rossiter, where one has to pay close attention to be absolutely certain of who is whom.

The pace of the telling in general rarely flags, the only real exception being during a central section when we are treated to extensive extracts from the 19th-century journals of Donatien Legendre's lawyer and then of the wife whom Legendre grievously abused. Collins makes these extracts, which are vital to any understanding of the rest of the action, as interesting as she can – and it is to her credit that she succeeds so well – but even so they do stand out in stark contrast to the breakneck pace of the rest.

Such minor carps aside, it is excellent news that at last a definitive version of
Tempter
has been released. Whether or not you've read the previous version, this is a publication that merits your attention.

—Infinity Plus

Into the Web

by Thomas H. Cook

Bantam, 272 pages, paperback, 2004

One of the great pleasures of opening each new Thomas H. Cook novel is that he eschews the standard rentathriller style employed by most of the other writers on the relevant shelves. Further, Cook is quite prepared to tailor his writing style to the mood of the subject matter, so that, in effect, if you follow Cook's novels you get several thriller writers for the price of one. (That is, if his books are even thrillers. They tend to transcend the category's guidelines.) Thus the last Cook novel I reviewed for
Crescent Blues
,
Peril
(see below), had a wonderfully spare dispassionate style that perfectly offset its in actuality very romantic tale of love trying to flower and of people trying to be
people
in brutally adverse circumstances.
Into the Web
again has brutality at its heart, but here the brutality is of the kind that communities accept almost as if not realizing it's there, the brutality perpetrated by their authority figures; the central brute is the ex-sheriff of a small, remote West Virginia town, Kingdom City. The style is almost that of the bucolic novel, which matches the way Kingdom City would like to see itself and us to see it; the events depict the true corruption and violence at Kingdom City's heart.

Roy Slater left Kingdom City for college in California weeks after his simple-minded brother Archie, in custody for viciously murdering the hostile parents of his girlfriend, hanged himself in his cell. Now, two or three decades later (the text is a little unclear on this), Roy is back to be at the side of his dying father. Old Sheriff Porterfield has retired, but his son Lonnie, a chip off a pretty revolting block, is running things in his place. Roy, escaping for a while from the curmudgeonly company of his father, stumbles into conversation with Lonnie, and hence almost immediately into the investigation of a suspicious death.

That death proves to be no mystery at all – in a delightful tease of our preconceptions, Cook soon lets us know this was merely a matter of a poor elderly man dying of chronic illness. But the death occurred on property owned by Roy's youthful sweetheart, Lila Cutler, whom he planned to return from college to marry and take away from Kingdom County, but who wrote and told him not to bother – she would never, after all, be his.

The reopening of this old wound draws Roy into prodding at another: he has always been convinced, despite Archie's confession, that his gentle-souled brother could not have been guilty of the decades-ago double homicide. If it wasn't Archie, who was it? Digging into the old crime, Roy discovers atrocities hidden for decades by Kingdom City's acceptance of central evils, and must constantly reappraise the people around him (notably his own father) and his interpretations of their motives for their past acts. What appears to be profound vileness can prove to be philanthropy, but the philanthropy in turn may conceal an even worse vileness. What seems mystery may be no mystery at all; the mystery may lie within what appears to be clear-cut ...

The dissection of the present to reveal the truth that gave rise to it is engrossing, and Cook succeeds also in making his tale extremely moving. Old Sheriff Porterfield emerges as one of the more terrifying brutes of modern fiction, even though his sense of duty can lead him to perform on occasion the kindest of deeds. But what really stirs the emotions, as Roy unearths the truth about not only the old homicides but also Lila Cutler, his father, and ultimately himself, is the sheer quantity of human happiness that has, over the decades, been obviated – the waste of human lives – through the failure of a community to face up to the monster it has placed in the position of master.

There is an obvious political allegory here, but Cook skilfully declines to take it too far, leaving it to the reader to connect the relevant dots. Besides, this is only one aspect of a novel whose shortness conceals the multiplicity of its layers. It's quite astonishing, in fact, that Bantam should have chosen to release this little masterpiece, reminiscent of Harper Lee's
To Kill a Mockingbird
, as a mass-market paperback original, since
Into the Web
is a novel you'll want to keep on your shelves for repeated reading. Hopefully there'll be a hardcover of it in due course.

—Crescent Blues

Peril

by Thomas H. Cook

Bantam Dell, 320 pages, hardback, 2004

Sara Labriola is, in a rather small way, married to the Mob: her husband Tony runs a legitimate enough business, but her father-in-law Leo is a vicious operator in the lower Mob echelons. Although Tony hasn't inherited Dad's vileness, he has been indoctrinated into believing some of Dad's rather more reprehensible attitudes concerning the roles of husbands and wives. Constrained from pursuing any activity that might interest her, condemned to spend her time picking up dirty underwear after Tony, realizing that she's hit middle-age and the future is going to be only endlessly more of the same, she yearns even for the somewhat grim days before she met Tony. Then she was a torch singer of occasionally purchasable morals, but at least she wasn't stifled.

Being fortunately childless – for shame! – one day she ups and flees her comfortable Long Island home for the anonymity of New York, taking neither car nor credit cards. She's untraceable. Or is she? Tony, slowly realizing the error of his ways, is eager to find her, not necessarily to bring her back but at least to talk to her so that he may have some sense of closure. Leo wants to track her too, ostensibly to bring back his son's wife but in fact to destroy her.

A small-time semi-crook called Mortimer is in serious hock to Leo. Mortimer has just been told he has only three months to live, so were all other things equal he'd be unmoved by Leo's death threats. However, he understands these would extend to his widow. He therefore complies when told to bring into the game the services of Stark, an enigmatic figure whose expertise is finding lost people – whether or not they wish to stay lost. (Stark? Donald E. Westlake fans, see below.)

Other involved characters include the barman Abe, the sole person whom Mortimer entrusts with the secret of his impending demise and also – by very stretched coincidence – the guy whom Sara approaches in Manhattan seeking a job as a singer; and Caruso, a hood forever seeking to turn hitman. Caruso has a fanatical loyalty to Leo, to whom he believes he owes everything.

Peril
is made up the interlocking tales of these various people, constructed rather in the way of a typical Ed McBain
87th Precinct
novel, although there the resemblance ends. (The style is more reminiscent of Donald E. Westlake in his "Richard Stark" mode.) As we are given the pieces of the plot to jigsaw together, a sort of inexorable momentum builds up; the tension is very real. Everyone wants to locate Sara except Sara herself, who wants to lose Sara and rediscover the woman she once was. Who will find her first? Her life depends on it.

A couple of the main characters are quite brilliantly depicted: Mortimer and especially Tony, who goes through a gradual attitudinal sea-change that's masterfully handled. But Leo's vileness seems sketched rather than painted in, and Sara's vapidity, although wonderfully captured in a lovely, lovely piece of characterization, makes it hard to care as much about her fate as you perhaps should.

You'll certainly enjoy
Peril
, and almost certainly you'll become snared in the working out of its various converging strands, but even just a few days after you've finished it you may find you have difficulty remembering its resolution. This is a top-quality piece of journeyman craftsmanship – nothing at all wrong with that, but it's not Cook at his best. Cook at his best, though, is equalled by few, so who's complaining?

—Crescent Blues

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