Books: Crime Round-Up

MARK TIMLIN
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The Independent Culture
Reprisal by Mitchell Smith, Headline, pounds 17.99. The people closest to professor of English Joanna Reed keep dying under strange circumstances. First, her husband in a sailing accident. Verdict: carelessness. Next, her father in a fire. Verdict: drunken accident. Then, in what appears to be a suicide, her beloved daughter. She believes that they were murdered, the killer and motive unknown. The authorities disagree, and Joanna's insistence that she is the victim of a conspiracy is met by suggestions that at best she is a damned nuisance, and at worst that she is going mad. To try to hold on to her sanity she writes poetry and, ignoring safety rules, explores the caves close to her home in New England where in the darkness and danger she believes she can find peace. But to no avail. She ends up in hospital with a nervous breakdown, and the only human contact she can bear is the young woman who was her daughter's friend at college and who cares for her through her illness. But is the girl truly her friend? Mitchell Smith keeps the tension screwed up tight as Joanna becomes involved with the local underworld in her search for answers to the deaths in her family. She realises that the past is always with us, and that mistakes made in our youth cannot simply be dismissed. Finally, in a cracking climax, she and the killer meet deep underground.

East Bay Grease by Eric Miles Williamson, Bloomsbury pounds 9.99. This is not a crime novel in the strict sense of the term. But there is enough crime in this tale of life in Sixties and Seventies Oakland, California, where hippies, Hell's Angels and Latinos maintain an uneasy and violent coexistence fuelled by tequila, cocaine, marijuana, acid and beer, to satisfy the most picky aficionado of the genre. T-Bird Murphy is a young boy, growing up wild in an Angel's HQ where his mother entertains the bikers with her ample charms. T-Bird loves jazz and religiously practices on his silver trumpet, but she prefers Iron Butterfly and Credence Clearwater Revival and smashes all his records before running off with yet another of life's losers, leaving him to fend for himself until his father comes out of jail and takes him to live in a trailer at the back of the Mohawk service station in town. T-Bird wheels, deals and steals through his adolescence, before taking off in his old truck to wander the highways and backroads of north-west America. This is no story of American affluence. It shows the other side of the Californian dream as T-Bone works as a tyre fitter with his dad, then, after they quarrel, hooks up with a construction gang, spraying liquid cement, from a high pressure hose that can suddenly jerk out of control and kill its operator. At night he plays trumpet in a Mexicali band for little money but lots of liquor and girls. It's often an ugly and depressing story: his two brothers are killed in separate but equally senseless incidents, and his father takes revenge for one of them by burning a Mexican family alive; his mother returns with the last in the long line of husbands, this one being younger than T-Bird himself. But there is also beauty in this book, when T-Bird plays his music and is transported to a different place. This powerful first novel reads like a biography and it is no surprise to read that the author has first-hand experience of both music and the construction business, and himself grew up in Oakland, CA.

Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell, No Exit pounds 6.99 / Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell, No Exit pounds 10. Of all the Southern-fried crime writers to come out of the swamps and bayous of the Confederate states over the past two decades, Daniel Woodrell is perhaps the best. I'll admit it's a close call with James Lee Burke, but as the latter's books become more like travel agent's brochures, Woodrell stays right down in the gutter where frankly this kind of writing deserves to live.

Under The Bright Lights is his first novel, reprinted from 1986, and Tomato Red is his latest. Both feature a cast of beautiful losers who tend not to last the course, set against villains who often do. His outstanding debut introduced the Shade brothers, one a crook running a bar where even angels might be well advised not to tread, one a cop, and one a lawyer, who re-appear in two subsequent works.

Thirteen years and five novels later comes Tomato Red. Sammy Barlach (such great names these people have) is a redneck, screw-up, small-time criminal stuck in Nowheresville, Missouri sweeping up in a dog food factory for a living. After a weekend of serious drug and alcohol abuse he attempts a burglary that leaves him trussed up like a Christmas turkey by an incestuous brother-and-sister team who have already turned the house over. The pair take pity on Sammy and introduce him to their mother, a beautiful whore doing business out of a shotgun shack in Venus Holler. When the trio offer him the chance to improve himself in the criminal fraternity he jumps at it. But then the brother is murdered, and when Sammy and his two female companions try to get to the bottom of the case, things get well out of hand. There's a direct line in Woodrell's writing from the likes of Jim Thompson, John D MacDonald and Charles Willeford, but this guy is a one-off, an individual we're going to hear a lot more from in the future.

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