Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

DISCLAIMER: as I did not like Velvet Was the Night my review will be, alas, a negative one. If you are a fan of SMG or you happen to love this novel, congratulazioni. Please, don’t @ me just because I don’t feel the same way as you do, I get it, YMMV. If you are interested in reading this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

I think this novel is confirmation that SMG’s books are not for me. I want to love what she writes but so far, I find her books to be a source of great frustration. Her female characters strike me as an amalgamation of Not Like Other Girls/Mary Sues/Cinderella-like-figures, there tends to be a total lack of female solidarity (in the case of mexican gothic we barely get any scenes featuring the two female characters who are supposedly meant to be close), and, out of the three books I’ve read by her, there have been no queer characters.

After seeing that Velvet Was the Night was going to be a noir novel I found myself actually looking forward to reading it as I happen to enjoy noir books, such as the ones penned by Walter Mosley. The cover, title, and premise of Velvet Was the Night were certainly alluring. I mean, covers like this one are pretty much my Achilles’ heel. My expectations weren’t that high given my history with SMG’s works…and yet, even so, I still ended up being fairly disappointed by Velvet Was the Night.

BRIEF OVERVIEW
In this foray into the noir genre, SMG once again transports her readers to 20th Mexico. This time around the action takes place in Mexico City during the 1970s, aka during Mexico’s ‘Dirty War’, a period of civil unrest, with student demonstrators and civilians clashing against and being persecuted/disappeared/massacred by the government.
30-something Maite is a plain, dowdy, and downtrodden secretary who dreams of adventure and romance. Not only does her family care zilch for her (because , of course, ), but everyone seems to overlook her. Her one joy is reading Secret Romance comics. Through these, she can briefly escape her ‘miserable’ existence. She spends most of her time fantasizing about the kind of romance, passion, drama that fills those stories & playing her own teensy-tiny violin. She occasionally gets a thrill by stealing people’s belongings (such a bad girl), but for the most part, she’s a quiet, bookish, plain jane. When her beautiful neighbour, artsy student Leonora, disappears Maite sets out to find her. Not out of concern, but because she was tasked with cat-sitting Leonora’s cat and she isn’t planning on doing so gratis (this line…“Maite would be damned if she was going to also be paying for meow-meow’s cuisine.” meow-meow? wow, sick burn maite). Her ‘detective’ skills leave a lot to be desired. She spends the remainder of her narrative going on about how plain and pathetic she is, how much she loves Secret Romance, how every other woman has it better than she does (i mean, she can’t afford to get her car repaired!) and imagining herself being with the two guys who happen to have been involved with the missing neighbour. One of them is more handsome than the other. That’s it.
We also get chapters following Elvis, a thug who isn’t like other thugs. You see, whereas his fellow goons enjoy beating people up, he doesn’t. He’s part of an enforcer group with ties to the government. As suggested by his nickname Elvis adores ‘the King’, rock ’n’ roll. He also likes old-timey movies. He’s just a nice guy really. His boss tells him to find Leonora as she may have some incriminating photos. As he’s looking for her, Elvis also observes Maite, and eventually becomes vaguely infatuated with her.

(MINOR SPOILERS BELOW)

Before I move to the reasons why I did not vibe with this, I will try and mention a few positive-ish things:
✓ the cover and title get top marks
✓ I do admire SMG for switching between genres rather than sticking to one and for bringing her own style to said genre
✓ the atmosphere at times was on point (even if it did try too hard to be gritty and edgy)
✓ the music (SMG included a playlist with some really solid choices)
✓ some of the descriptions were actually pretty great and certainly fitted in with the noir aesthetic
✓ the sense of place & time were fairly strong
✓ the political commentary
✓ the ending’s open-ended nature

Now, for the things that were no good to me:

storyline
I’m all for slow-burn narratives but here the pacing never really took off. The plot consists of a series of incredibly repetitive scenes. Maite is with man numero 1 or man numero 2. She’s irritated by him, no, wait, she actually wants him. She comes across activists and grows slightly more aware of the world around her. That’s it. Elvis spends his portion of the story tailing Maite or others and dissing his ‘colleagues’ (who unlike him, a heart of gold do not have). While the author does address how fraught this period of time was in Mexico, I wanted more out of the story. I would have liked more interesting characters and more diverse interactions between them (instead of getting the same two characters speaking to each other).
The narrative is also repetitive when it comes to reiterating the same information about the characters. SMG already established early on what Maite and Elvis are like: Maite is plain and Elvis kind of wants out of the crime life. Yet, time and time again we read the same stuff about them. Maite goes on and on and on about how much she likes Secret Romance and how unsatisfied she is by her lamentably unromantic existence. Elvis just wants someone who shares his musical taste and maybe also a way out of his rather lonely lifestyle. I got this in the very first 20% of the book. Yet, I was confronted with this same info throughout my reading of this novel. I found them to be really insipid. They were, for the most part, passive. Things happen to them. Their arcs were as flat as their personalities.
The missing woman aspect of the storyline was similarly underwhelming. Leonora’s disappearance lacked oomph. I never felt any apprehension on her behalf because Maite doesn’t give two shits about her (so why should i bring myself to care?). She was also portrayed in such a snidey way….
Sadly, overall, I found this story to be dull & predictable. Nothing of note truly happens and I felt little to no suspense. I would have liked it more if the story had had a more tangible air of mystery. The story also felt vaguely vanilla? There is some violence and some swearing but other than that…eh, the tone of the story seemed rather juvenile. The narrative is very much intent on impressing upon us that tis’ noir. Sometimes, this works, but, sometimes it just struck me as a tad overdone and distracting almost.

characters
Maite maite maite….why why why did you have to be such a woe-is-me whinging whiner? Her character actually had potential I believe. I was hoping that the author would subvert this trope of the ‘plain and lonely secretary dreaming of romance’ but she sadly does not. The cover made me think that along the way Maite would slowly or drastically transform into a femme fatale or would become more self-assured and proactive behaviours. She does neither of these things. She remains very much the same by the end. She doesn’t grow or regress. To me, she was still recognisably the same Maite we met on the very first pages (note: emphasis on the ‘to me’). Very early in the narrative SMG establishes that Maite is overlooked by her family with a very ‘subtle’ scene in which her mother bakes or buys a chocolate cake for her birthday even if she knows that Maite doesn’t like chocolate. She’s served for last (if i recall) and given a small slice or something. Her mother also doesn’t care about helping her out with her car repair payments and compares her unfavourably to ‘your sister’ (who is married & with children). These scenes were meant to make us feel sympathetic towards Maite but they just succeeded in irritating me.
Maite isn’t beautiful or charismatic, nor does she have any friends (because of course). She spends most of her time envying other women, making judgy comments about their appearance (often implying that they lead easier lives than she does or have more luck). Other women are sexy, slim, provocative, without a care in the world. Maite isn’t that interested in politics and prefers reading comics or romance books. Someone describes them as syrupy or sappy or whatnot and she gets all flustered saying that they aren’t. Look, I’m all for escapist reads. But, there is no denying that the stuff she reads is sappy. Why pretend otherwise? It would have been more satisfying if in her defence of these comics/books Maite had pointed out how horrible and violent the ‘real’ world is, and why shouldn’t she wish to ‘escape’ it? And so what if she likes sappy love stories?
The fact of the matter is: I disliked her. She was that special brand of annoying that always acts like a victim. Everyone else is mean to her. They are either taking advantage of her (like leonora and her ‘men’) or mistreating her (her family). I would have loved her if she had been explicitly written as unlikeable. She could have been a modern Emma Bovary. Someone who is so determined to make her daydreams into her reality that she’s ready to sabotage her own marriage and reputation to do so. Emma is a bitch, but I love her. The narrative is quite clear in pointing out that she’s selfish and vain. Emma’s nastiness was quite subversive & refreshing. But here, well, Maite is just a crybaby, a nonentity. She claims that she’s pathetic and boring but then we have Elvis pointing out how ‘interesting’ she seems. The narrative seemed intent on making her seem ‘different’ and ‘more relatable’ than other women.
Maite did not strike me (again, emphasis on ‘me’) as a deep or fleshed out character. Yet, she was presented as being this complex woman who is caught in a ‘dangerous’ web. I wish she’d been written as being a wholly superficial and self-serving individual. Someone who is only concerned in making her fantasies into her reality. Or, as I said above, as someone who goes from being a tremulous meek & mousy woman who is unsure of herself, to a femme fatale type of figure. In scenes of ‘tension’ (when she is fighting with that guy) she either makes petulant remarks (which were frankly cringy given that he’s still a student and she’s in her 30s) or acts like the classic ‘fragile’ and ‘hysterical’ woman who can’t defend herself or speak up or use her brain to figure out stuff.
Elvis…I don’t have much to say about him. I could not take him seriously for the most part. Suffice it to say that he struck me as the type of male character female authors write. He isn’t particularly smart or kind, but really, he isn’t all that bad given that, unlike his ‘mates’, he doesn’t love violence. Also, he’s into music…clearly, that makes him deep…right?
The secondary characters are very much cardboard cutouts. The women are all horrible and catty. The men are either thick, douchebags, or fuckbois.

writing
While at times I liked SMG’s prose, her style strikes me as passive. That is to say that when she recounts something I feel very much at a distance from what she’s recounting (even if that thing is happening there and then).

good vs. evil/morality
Clearly bad characters are revealed to be in fact bad. While our good characters have one or two ‘reasonable’ flaws (she steals now and again, he’s working for the ‘baddies’) that are meant to humanise them, said flaws don’t change the fact that they are very much the good ones. Our MCs were not the morally grey characters I’d hoped they’d be (esp. given that the noir genre lends itself well to ambiguous characters).

All in all, this novel was a vexing read. The story was boring and clichéd and the characters thinly rendered caricatures. As mentioned early on, the lack of female solidarity and lgbtq+ characters also frustrated me (can we stop pitting women against each other?).

I give up with SMG’s books. I wish the author nothing but the best and I’m happy to see that many other readers can appreciate her work in a way I’ve so far been unable to. Her novels are just not for me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

that sex scene was 💀


Having enjoyed two of Mosley’s latest novels (Trouble Is What I Do and Blood Grove) I was looking forward to delving into his earlier work. Devil in a Blue Dress is the first book in his Easy Rawlins series and, while it has many of Mosley’s best traits, overall it isn’t quite as compelling or complex as say the #15th book of this series. Set in the 1940s Los Angeles Easy is in his late twenties and has recently been fired from his job at a defence plant. A white man offers him money if he can find Daphne Monet, a young woman who often hangs out in Black locales. Easy accepts and soon finds himself in over his head. His employer is a clearly dangerous man and he isn’t the only one wanting to find Daphne.
What follows is very much a classic noir detective story populated by seedy characters and nighttime landscapes. In his line of questioning, Easy ruffles a few feathers and makes an enemy or two, all the while trying to locate Daphne, a beautiful woman who has clearly been up to something.
Mosley’s social commentary was the most interesting part of this story. He depicts the everyday racism and injustices Easy experiences and has experienced, from his run-ins with two racist policemen out to ‘get him’, to the condescending way he is treated by white strangers and acquaintances alike. Mosley also depicts the PTSD that Easy and other characters who fought in WWII experience, referring more than once to the violence and brutality of war.
While I liked his use of tropes in his other novels, here they lacked subtlety. Take Daphne. The woman is this Femme Fatale who acts like an angel but soon enough reveals what a ‘vixen’ she is. There was this horrid sex scene which made me want to scratch my eyes out and could only have been written by a man (if you know, you know) and I did not entirely like how Mosley resorting to the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ archetype (doomed because of who she ‘really’ is). His female characters in general left a lot to be desired, they are very much objects (sex objects more often than not).
If anything this proves just what a long way Mosley has come as a writer. His storytelling and characterisation are much more accomplished in his most recent work, however, even here you can clearly see signs of his talent (his crackling dialogues, his exaggerated yet wholly effective metaphors, his story’s strong sense of place, and his piercing commentary). Still, if you haven’t read anything by him, I encourage you to give his newest novels a go before venturing into his older stuff.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

With its strong sense of place and dynamic dialogues Bluebird, Bluebird makes for a solid Southern Noir, one that will definitely appeal to fans of crime authors such as Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane, and S.A. Cosby. Bluebird, Bluebird follows Darren Mathews, a Black Texas Ranger. After helping out a friend in need Darren’s job as a Ranger is now on the line. He and his wife are on a break as she is tired of his devotion to the Rangers and believes that he should instead become a lawyer. Darren is fully aware of the faults within his department—from racial profiling to brutality and corruption—he has a strong sense of justice and seems determined to make a change. A friend of his convinces him to look into two recent murders in Lark, a rural and predominantly white small town. In less than a week, two bodies washed up in the bayou: first, a Black lawyer from Chicago, and then a 20-year-old local white woman.
Darren’s presence in Lark causes quite a stir as Lark’s law enforcement and its residents aren’t keen on ‘outsiders’, especially those who ask too many questions and seem determined to uncover long-buried secrets. Darren knows that this was a racially motivated murder and is determined to solve the case, even at the cost of his own safety.

Bluebird, Bluebird was an engrossing and deeply atmospheric whodunnit. It has some hard-boiled elements to it, snappy dialogues, and presents its readers with an incisive examination of race, justice, and belonging in a Southern state whose past and present are still marred by racial injustices. The author capture Darren’s inner conflict with clarity and empathy: on the one hand he loves Texas, on the other, he knows far too well how dangerous a place it is (over the course of the narrative Darren comes face to face with members of the Aryan Brotherhood). His character did fall a bit too neatly in the gruff noir detective who has a drinking problem and despite his not always amenable demeanour or actions, his heart is in the right place. The wife of the murdered lawyer also has a role in the story, that of an ingenue from the Big City who spends most of the time crying (falling into Darren’s manly arms) or screaming during gun shootings. To be perfectly honest, I could have done without her. Darren’s poor wife is a mere blip in the story, she gets two or three mentions but otherwise, her character is utterly irrelevant.
Locke’s storytelling is great even if she does employ the dreaded “[He] let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding” which earns her a minus (i have come to loathe this particular phrase). But, thankfully, for the most part, her writing is definitely compelling. The descriptions about the bayou, the long seemingly deserted roads, and other Southern landscapes are incredibly vivid. The dialogues too, as I mentioned already, have this ping-pong quality that makes the book hard to put down.
While Bluebird, Bluebird didn’t quite hit me the way Blacktop Wasteland did (if you haven’t read that novel and you are a fan of southern noir novels, do yourself a favour, read it) I still enjoyed reading it and I will definitely be checking out its sequel.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Breach of Peace by Daniel B. Greene

I am always hesitant to read books by youtubers or other public figures I like as alas they tend to disappoint (and then I kind of guilty for not liking their stuff). Luckily, Daniel Green’s debut is promising indeed.

Set over the course of one day, Breach of Peace begins with one of our main characters walking in on a brutal crime scene. When an imperial family is butchered Inspector Khlid, an Officer of God, is assigned the case. Greene keeps his cards close to his chest so that we learn slowly of Inspector Khlid’s world (which vaguely reminded me of BioShock for some reason).
Alongside Inspector Khlid we meet two of her colleagues, Samuel, who happens to be her husband, and Chapman, who is a bit of a wild card. They all approach the case differently and the tension between them, particularly between Samuel and Chapman, adds an edge to their interactions.
Within these pages, there is violence, monsters, corruption, and betrayals.
Breach of Peace presents its readers with flawed characters, an atmospheric setting, and a gripping storyline. While we do get the occasional moment of humor, this novella is dark with strong roots in the noir genre.
This novella is quite clearly setting up the story for the future The Lawful Times novellas so readers who prefer self-contained stories may be better off skipping this one (or you could always wait for the rest to be published).
There was the occasional turn of phrase that was a wee bit conventional and there were aspects of the world that I wish had been explored some more but overall this is a solid novella that ultimately managed to subvert my expectations (I mean….that ending was something). I will definitely be reading the next one!

my rating: ★★★½

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Blood Grove by Walter Mosley

“Life is one long side street with about a million crossroads, Sorry used to tell me when I was a boy. Every hour, sometimes every minute, you got to make the choice which way to go. Some of them turns don’t matter but don’t let that fool ya. The minute you start to think that one way is just like t’other, that’s when the shit come down.”

Blood Grove is hard-boiled crime at its best. Walter Mosley’s smooth and level-headed narrator is a Black private investigator in 1960s LA. Easy is, excuse my pun, easy to root for. While Easy is close friends with some not so morally upright individuals, his integrity and empathy set him apart from other hard-boiled PI. The mystery is intriguing if labyrinthine, and I enjoyed seeing how things would unravel. Easy’s latest case is a knotty one. A young white veteran clearly suffering from PTSD claims he may or may have not killed a man who was attacking a young woman. Easy, who fought in WWII, feels sympathy towards this clearly traumatized young man and so begins his investigation.

Throughout the course of the novel, we encounter big and small crime bosses, racist and incompetent policemen, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and Femme Fatales. Mosley’s commentary on race, sexism, inequality, corruption, war, and violence felt at times all too pertinent to our own times (showing how some things change, and some things don’t). I found Easy’s unflappability reassuring and the inclusion of his home life (such as his bond with his daughter) made him all the more endearing.
Not only does Easy’s narration have style but the crackling dialogues and vivid descriptions (“If a smile had a sound his would have been a death knell.”) make for some spectacular reading material. Also, for those wondering whether you have to read the previous novels in order to be able to appreciate this one, I, personally, did not have any trouble ‘catching’ on to things. Mosley doesn’t reiterate the events that occurred in the previous novels but he gives us an idea of who’s who.
If you are a fan of Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, or if you, like me, loved S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland you should definitely read this.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

“You were never out of the Life completely. You were always looking over your shoulder. You always kept a gun within reach.”

Blacktop Wasteland is a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled read that gives a fresh new take on the One Last Job™ premise. S.A. Cosby’s pitch-perfect debut novel is brutal, twisty, and hella gritty. Blacktop Wasteland will have you at edge-of-your-seat from its very first chapter—in which our ‘hero’ takes part in a drag race—until the novel’s finish line. Although Cosby’s noir narrative is reminiscent of Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane, his dynamic voice brings something new to the crime fiction scene.
Set in a small-town in rural Virginia, Blacktop Wasteland follows Beauregard Montagerom, nicknamed Bug, a family man who works as a mechanic at his own garage. Beauregard’s attempt to live an honest life is hindered by money troubles: business is bad and unforeseen expenses keep cropping up. Going against his wife’s wishes, Beauregard agrees to one last job. The heist, however, doesn’t go quite as planned…and things rapidly go south.
Blacktop Wasteland has a lot to offer: an action-packed storyline, charged dialogues, and compelling yet morally grey—if not downright corrupt—characters.
This is one gripping novel. While things do get violent and messy, Cosby manages to vividly render Beauregard’s complicated family dynamics, as well as the motivations of those connected to the heist. The way the story unfolds took me by surprise, and in the latter half of the novel, my jaw may have hit the floor once or twice.
Alongside some pretty epic moments—Beauregard, for all his faults, is one smooth guy—the story manages to pack quite a few emotional punches. Cosby doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities of crime, poverty, and racism.
Cosby’s descriptions were terrific, especially where cars were concerned (“the car shivered like a wolf shaking its pelt” , “the motor went from a roar to the war cry of a god”). They could also be startlingly humorous (such as “explanations were like assholes. Everyone has one and they are all full of shit”).
Reading Blacktop Wasteland felt like being taken on an exhilarating ride. This novel is smart, dark, funny, and—as previously mentioned—seriously gritty.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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The Less Dead by Denise Mina — book review

The Less Dead is a gripping, if bleak, piece of tartan noir. When sex workers, drug addicts, migrant workers, and otherwise marginalised groups are victims of murder, they are called the ‘less dead’. Their deaths are less important, not as ‘impactful’. Denise Mina’s novel, in a similar vein to recent releases such as Long Bright River, is less interested in its ‘serial killer’ storyline and more concerned with depicting the realities and experiences of women whose lives have been punctuated by sexual abuse, violence, and addiction.
Set in Glasgow, the novel introduces to thirty-something Margot Dunlop, a doctor still grieving the recent death of her mother. Margot is struggling to cope, with her break up from Joe, her longterm boyfriend, and with her pregnancy. She finds herself wanting to learn more about her birth mother, Susan, only to learn that she was brutally killed years before. Susan’s was one of the nine victims of a serial killer who preyed on sex workers. Since Susan’s death Nikki, Susan’s older sister, has received a string of menacing letters who could only have been written by the murderer. While Nikki seems eager to get to know her niece, a disbelieving Margot is hesitant to venture into a ‘world’ she thinks little of. When Margot also starts to receive crude letters, she’s forced to reconsider.
As Margot learns more of Susan, a young woman who refused to labelled as a victim, and her birth family, she finds herself challenging her own biases.
Mina presents her readers with a thought-provoking interrogation of class. The women she writes of, their struggles and traumas, are rendered with striking empathy. Margot, however, comes across as a far less nuanced character. Her remoteness seemed unwarranted and unexplained. She’s curt to the point of being brusque, she makes a few decision that aren’t truly delved into, making her seem out of character for the sake of the plot. Nikki, by comparison, not only felt truly real, but she’s really admirable. Margot’s relationship with her ‘problematic’ best friend and her ex detracted from the overall the story. These two characters didn’t seem all that believable.
While the third person present tense narration did add a sense of immediacy, or urgency if you will, to the novel, it did occasionally did frustrate me. There are certain conversations that don’t have quotations marks and they also became a bit gimmicky (it made sense in certain scenes, but the more this happened the less ‘meaningful’ it became). Another pet peeve of mine were the sections from the ‘culprits’ perspective. These were brief and struck me as salacious, as in ‘glimpse the thoughts of a deviant mind’ (as if this individual’s letters didn’t convey their state of mind).
Mina’s story is certainly evocative and gritty. The scenes focused on Nikki were easily my favourite. Margot’s ‘personal’ struggles, on the other hand, just didn’t grab my interest. Perhaps this is because I didn’t particularly warm to her character, whose wooden personality reminded me of the narrator of Long Bright River.
Nevertheless, I did find Mina’s examination of the way in which women such as Nikki and Susan are treated by their society to be both incisive and affecting. While Mina doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities and daily horrors of addiction and prostitution, she doesn’t make her characters into ‘pitiable’ stereotypes. The thriller elements give the narrative an element of suspense, and the tension between Margot and those connected to Susan did gave the story a certain ‘edge’.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley — book review

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“I was so hardened to suffering that somehow even the casualties of history fell outside the borders of my self-imposed sovereignty.”

In spite of its short length Walter Mosley’s Trouble Is What I Do packs a punch. This is noir at its finest. Mosley doesn’t waste words, and we can tell that by the fact that each description and dialogue in his novel has a certain significance.

“Slowly, he lowered onto a chair, looking at me as if I was the bad news he’d been waiting for his entire life ”

The very first opening pages of Trouble Is What I Do grabbed my attention. Mosley’s first person narrator is Leonid McGill who as a ‘crook’ turned P.I. is all too familiar with navigating the crime world. When Phillip Worry, known as Catfish, a 92-year-old bluesman, asks Leonid to deliver a letter it would seem like a fairly straightforward task. Except that this letter is addressed to Penelope Sternman, heiress of one of America’s most wealthy and influential families, and the contents reveal her black lineage. Her father, Catfish’s son, is a corrupt racist who will stop at nothing in order to keep his parentage secret.
Thankfully, Leonid is the man for the job. Aided by old ‘friends’, he sets out to deliver this letter.

“Catfish had given me drink and song and trust. These were sacred gifts and, in a way, I was born again.”

Leonid’s distinctive narration makes him stand out from other P.I.s. He is charming, incisive, and, unlike many other detectives, doesn’t take himself too seriously. He doesn’t need to throw his weight around, his reputation precedes him: “This man you’re walking up on is Leonid McGill. He’ll break half the bones in your body for business and the other half for fun.”
Yet, in spite of his past, readers will be able to see how humane he is. His moral compass does waver, but only occasionally. Speaking of his past, Mosley manages to give Leonid a lot of history without rehashing his whole life story.
The dialogues are snappy, in equal measure amusing and tense. Leonid’s lyrical narrative provides us with evocative descriptions that truly bring his world to life.
Leonid’s engrossing assignment provides a relevant commentary on race that doesn’t provide readers with simple answers. The ending is surprisingly heart-rendering.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane or for those who are interested in reading a more poetic take on noir.

“At one time I blamed my father’s abandonment for these sins, but I had learned that in the end, wrong is wrong and every man has to carry his own water.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup — review

In spite of its promising beginning The Chestnut Man implements far too many cliches for my liking (a few of which are listed on CrimeReads).41154336.jpg
This book centres on a series of gruesome killings in Copenhagen. On each crime scene the killer leaves behind a chestnut doll.
Although the writing is detached it does pay attention to the visual aspect of its scenes, pointing out something in the environment where the characters are, and emphasising some of their gestures and or habits. In this it had an almost cinematic feeling to it, and perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given that the novel’s author is also a screenwriter (of the successful The Killing, and the not quite as well received The Snowman).
While I initially thought the novel unsentimental tone worked in its favour, making most scenes much more chilling, but I soon noticed that it wasn’t as impartial as it seemed. Even when the narrative follows other characters, it clearly favours its two ‘protagonists’. The narrative’s voice seemed to treat characters other than Hess and Thulin with dislike, or it addressed them by their nationality (the narrative calls Hess’ former colleague François the Frenchman…even after we already have been informed that yes, François is French), vices, or the role they play in the story. For example, when the narratives follows the two ‘bad’ detectives that work against our two main leads, it is quick to present them as stupid, since it has to emphasise that they are CORRUPT and STUPID.
While the chapters’ shortness occasionally did create a sense of suspense, they often seemed to end on rather silly note, and it seemed that the author was make even the most boring or ordinary scenes abruptly end witha sort of ‘cliff-hanger’.
Here are a lists of the clichés that I could have personally done without :

The Brooding Male Lead With A Past
In spite of his intelligence, this temperamental guy often behaves in a way that makes his superiors see him as insubordinate. Yet, he is the only who notices the chestnut men, and he is the main drive behind the investigation’s process.
I really disliked Hesse. I thought he was arrogant and difficult for no reason (yes, he has been ‘relocated’, but would he really act like such a sulk? ). He made no attempt to form a work-relationship with his colleagues, so I’m not sure why I should feel bad that they regard him with hostility (very tit for tat if you ask me).

The Hot Female Detective Who Is Good At Her Job But Not The Greatest Mother
She takes no shit from her male colleagues, who often try it on with her. While I’m sure that there are cases where male detectives try to sexually harass their female colleagues, I’m getting kind of tired of reading of the same scenes, especially if they are included just to make her seem more ‘badass’. Allegedly Thulin is smart, but her expertise lies in certain computer programs (she wants to join the department for cyber crime) so she is surprisingly useless for most of the investigation. In addition to her supposedly intelligence, she also has a banger of a body. I get that being strong or fit is an advantage in her line of work but it’s one thing to have a muscular body, it’s another to have the perfect body (much is made of “her slender waist and shapely backside”). When questioning a doctor she ‘uses’ her looks and acts “coquettishly” to trip this guy up. Couldn’t she have been able to question him effectively without having to rely on her physical appearance ? What about her brains? Not enough?
And because the story has to stress that she is not like other women, in that she is focused on her career, she also has to have an active sexual life. And no, she doesn’t do ‘romance’. Nor does she have time for her child (which is perfectly reasonable given the type of job that she does, yet she is made to seem like a careless mother). Anyway, she is too busy and badass for any of that sentimental stuff.

Corruption Ahoy
We have these two detectives who are clearly there just to make our leads look good. They are racist, sexist, stupid, amoral, and incompetent. Yep. Because they are jealous of our main leads they try to make their life harder. The narrative makes it clear that these are BAD detectives. In fact, most of the police personnel seems unfit to work.

The Detective’s ‘Crazy Wall’
You know the wall that appears in shows like The Wire and True Detective. It’s full of strings, scribbles, articles, and all of that sort of stuff. Well Hess happens to have one of his own, and the narrative reveals this in such a dramatic way, as if it’s a huge reveal or something when it is anything but.

Consulting a Convicted Killer
This whole interaction was laughable and full of poorly veiled allusions.

The Twist
Knowing the killer’s identity doesn’t always detract from my overall reading experience. Here however I found the killer’s character and motivations too be rather overdone.

This was a very bland thriller. I disliked both the narrative’s judg-y tone and its shallow characters. The plot went on and on, but I wasn’t all that interested.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney — book review

“That was Wyatt’s philosophy when it came to the past: Stay out of it. ”

The Long and Faraway Gone is a well written if somewhat uneven novel.

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I can definitely see why it has drawn comparisons to books by Dennis Lehane. Both authors render a strong sense of place, so much so that the settings of their stories transcend the role of backdrop, becoming an active character into their narratives, one that can—and will—sway the direction of the story.

One of the links between two apparently unrelated storylines in The Long and Faraway Gone is that they both take place in Oklahoma City. In the summer of 1986 two young individuals experienced tragic and traumatic losses: Wyatt was the only survivor in an armer robbery while Julianna’s alluring—and troubled—older sister Genevieve went missing during the annual State Fair.
Years later Wyatt—now a private investigator—and Julianna—a nurse—grow increasingly preoccupied over the past . Soon their obsessions will derail the course of their everyday lives as they jeopardise personal relationships, and their careers, by undertaking investigations of their own.

Wyatt’s humour and emphatic nature made him into a compelling protagonist. His story seemed a lot more fleshed out and coherent than Julianna’s. While I was willing to look past Wyatt’s mistakes, and understood why his stay in Oklahoma City affects him so much, I was unable to reconcile myself with Julianna’s appalling behaviour. Her narrative seemed to have a lot more padding, and while her ‘investigation’ definitely had some tense moments, I was always looking forward to return to Wyatt’s story.
It was interesting to see how their storylines occasionally mirrored one another, yet Lou Berney never resorted to throw an unlikely connection between the two as a way of linking these two stories together.

Berney, similarly to Lehane, is skilled in giving each of his characters—regardless of their role—a convincing personality. With a few clever descriptions, and by articulating those idiosyncrasy relating to an individual’s mannerisms or their way of speaking, Berney creates realistic and memorable characters. Regardless if we like them or not, his characterisation is such that they do not fall neatly into a ‘good person’ or ‘bad person’ category. Because his characters are rendered in such vivid detail, his dialogues crackle with energy. There are so many great lines and exchanges that make The Long and Faraway Gone into such an engaging novel.
The resolution to the main characters’ interrogation of their past, although unexpected, is surprisingly mundane. Berney doesn’t try to make the characters’ tragedy into part of larger and unlikely plot, providing instead solutions that are far more realistic.

In spite of a few minor quibbles—mostly relating to Julianna’s narrative—I thought that The Long and Faraway Gone was an engaging read and I am eager to read more by Berney.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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