Books: Hard boiled, heavy ordnance, cold snap

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The Independent Culture
Highland T'ing

by Dirk Robertson X-Press pounds 5.99

Whiteouts

by Michael Blaine Headline pounds 9.99

Underdogs

by Rob Ryan Headline pounds 9.99

Three first novels, all by young(ish) male writers, all dripping with testosterone and loaded with heavy duty ordnance. All are paperback originals, a trend in crime writing that becomes more pronounced by the week. All three are short and sharp and get straight down to business.

Two of the books are set in America and one in Great Britain, and the writers have each gone for the northern extremities of their chosen locations, so the trio are linked by the cold weather. In all other respects the novels are as different as can be.

Whiteouts takes place in New York State, up close to Canada where the wind blows cold off the borderline, and where young Maurice Coleman is on medication when he can be bothered to take it, which is seldom. So when he leaves the medical facility where he's been confined and heads home through the worst blizzard in years, dumps his pills and buys a machine pistol which has been converted to fully automatic, you know things are going to get a little tense.

Meanwhile, Maurice's Mom is regretting her hippie days of casual sex and the drink spiked with LSD that she downed when she was pregnant, which could have caused her son's mental problems. Pop is gambling away the money in the bank he owns and little sister feels neglected and is smoking lots of dope. And outside the weather is getting worse, the world's turned white and everyone's looking for Maurice.

He, meanwhile, is holed up in a motel with a bunch of recreational drugs and a teenage waitress who can hardly he bothered to remove her chewing gum before giving him a BJ as she so sweetly calls it. When Maurice and the waitress part, in a snit he takes most of his family hostage and things begin to look rough for everyone.

Michael Blaine captures perfectly the cabin-fever oppression of being snowbound in a tiny North American town where the consumer choice is between Myrtle's Unisex Hair Shack and Al's One Stop Shooting Shop. He has written a cracker of a book, if a rather depressing view of the way Americans live now.

is set in Scotland, and a very wintry Scotland at that. This is a funky little novel concerning a young black man who discovers that one of his ancestors was a Scottish nobleman who was framed and transported to the West Indies. Over the years, the Scotsman's legacy has grown and only two people have a claim on it. The young man, his sister and his best friend travel to Edinburgh to collect his share of the inheritance, but the second claimant has other, more violent ideas. Robertson is a white Scotsman writing about black London culture and the way it interacts with ancient Scottish tribalism at this time of devolution, and how similarly disenfranchised both groups feel.

But the cream of the crop is Rob Ryan's Underdogs, set in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, and in (and under) Seattle in the present day. For those who don't know, on June 6th 1889 the great fire of Seattle began in a workshop when someone overturned a hot glue pot. When it came to rebuilding, it was decided to raise the floor level one storey to eliminate drainage and sewage problems. What happened then was that a subterranean city was formed which still exists to this day.

When Hilton Badcock comes up short on a drugs deal, and decides to rob a 7-Eleven to make up the difference and is spotted by a rookie cop on a stakeout next door, he shoots his way out of the store and on the way takes an eight-year-old girl as a hostage. As they flee the scene through an old house, they drop through the floor, out of the real world into the underworld, rather like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. And a real wonderland it is, although rather crowded, what with murderous marijuana growers, fake cops, real cops, transsexuals, and various losers in life's lottery who've decided literally to drop out of society and go underground.

Ryan manages to give a real feeling of claustrophobia to the tale as a Vietnam veteran tunnel-rat with enough baggage for a dozen lives follows Hilton and his hostage through the secret city, and the chase ends up with a tragicomic shoot-out in a bus tunnel that all turns on the replay of a corner kick taken in France during World Cup '98 using a skull instead of a football. And there's a surprise twist that I challenge anyone to see coming.

Ryan has certainly written a hardboiled tour-de-force, although I get the feeling that when it came down to weapons and equipment he merely bought a book and listed out what sounded tough. Even so, I doubt whether there's going to be a better first crime novel this year.

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