Friday, 29 September 2017

Devious, dangerous men doing dark stuff


We’re talking street-crime of the heavier variety this week: hoods, hoodlums, muggers, blaggers, gun-toting desperadoes of every sort. That’s partly because we’ve today reached the final countdown to publication of my latest crime thriller, SHADOWS – here I am, unsubtly waving the book around at the recent very successful Noir at the Wigan Bar! – but also because I’ll be reviewing Don Winslow’s epic study of a cop not just at war with the underworld, but with himself, THE FORCE.

As always, that review can be found towards the lower end of today’s column. Before we get there, in reflection of today’s chosen subject-matter, I thought I’d delve into the realms of true crime again, focussing not so much on murderers this week, as on bank robbers. Who were the worst at it, who were the most successful, who were the deadliest? Read on ...

Robbery with violence

SHADOWS is the second outing for my female cop character, Lucy Clayburn, who readers may recall completed a difficult undercover assignment in the first novel, STRANGERS, and in the process brought down a major crime syndicate and ended a serial killer’s reign of terror.

Not a bad start to her career, you may think, except that Lucy had already been in the job ten years when STRANGERS was set, and was something of a veteran, having worked the tough Manchester streets with all the nerve and determination her blue-collar background could muster. So, it should be no surprise that in SHADOWS, Lucy, though she’s only a detective constable, is now regarded as a prized asset by Crowley CID, who are not best pleased when she is co-opted onto the Manchester Robbery Squad to tackle a particularly deadly bunch of well-armed bandits, the Red-Headed League, a nickname given to them by their police pursuers mainly because of the blood-red ski masks they wear.

They are a fearsome bunch indeed. Always equipped with automatic weapons, and always leaving bullet-riddled bodies in their wake.

It’s a great gig for Lucy, who’s nothing if not a toughie, herself, and something of a biker chick in her spare time. But there is one small problem: when it becomes apparent that the targets of these robberies are exclusively criminals themselves – and not just that, but affiliates of the terrifying Manchester crime syndicate, the Crew – the stakes are raised dramatically.

The cops now know they must act fast, because it looks as if a full-blown gangster war is about to erupt …

So, as stated earlier, in honour of this new novel, which I must admit to liking very much (and which hits the shops on October 19), I thought I might focus today on some notorious real-life robbers.

They certainly occupy a strange place in the echelons of crime, these guys. In the eyes of certain members of the public, they dwell in a kind of twilight zone between villain and hero. Though undoubtedly ruthless and violent, this is counterbalanced for some by their audacity and daring. Even certain police officers of my acquaintance have expressed quiet admiration at the skill and planning that has gone into some major jobs.

The brutality, though, is something that really can’t be discounted. In English law, the definition of robbery is theft with violence, or with a threat of violence. There is no getting away from it: when someone commits a robbery, that means someone else, usually someone entirely innocent, is put in terror of injury or death, and may even suffer one or both of those outcomes.

So, I’m not going to lionise these guys, but by the same token, I’m not going to pretend that I’m not fascinated by their exploits. Here are …


FIVE OF THE WORLD’S MOST NOTORIOUS ARMED ROBBERS, AND THE ULTRA-VIOLENT JOBS THAT MADE THEIR NAMES:


Dillinger Gang

In 1933, with the repeal of Prohibition, and the end of easy money provided by bootlegging beer and spirits, America’s criminal underworld had to diversify. And so, the following decade saw a widespread return to that oldest and most traditional form of violent crime, robbing banks. 

The rural US was still in many ways reminiscent of the Old West, inasmuch as it comprised numerous small towns isolated from each other by great distances and only connected by miles of empty, often unmarked back-roads. Whereas organised law-enforcement, while relatively light on the ground in the great open spaces of the Midwest, at least had the advantage of now being motorised, the bank robbers were motorised too, and often were equipped with automatic weapons. As such, an entire host of hayseed nobodies, folk who otherwise would have left no ripple on history, became infamous overnight.

Names like Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker and her boys, Wilbur Underhill and, of course, Bonnie and Clyde, were soon synonymous with heavily-armed villainy, the objective of which was usually robbery (though sometimes kidnapping), but the regular consequence of which was blazing gunfire as the participants shot their way out of tight corners, often wounding and killing police officers, bank guards and members of the public. Despite this, most likely because of the Depression and the Dust Bowl disaster – a truly desperate time during which countless unproductive farms and other businesses were unfairly foreclosed, turning bankers themselves into a reviled enemy – these highly mobile bandits attained folk-hero status.

But none more so than John Dillinger.

A rebel since youth (a mutinous seaman in his late teens), Indiana-born Dillinger was convicted of his first serious crime in 1924, when he stole $50 from a grocery, and after being persuaded to confess by his church-deacon father, was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. Stunned by this harsh sentence, he turned his back on his father’s path, and by his own admission, determined to become a ‘mean son of a bitch’. While inside, he befriended seasoned criminal, Harry Pierpont, and studied the bank robbery techniques of a former professional criminal, German-born Herman Lamm, who had utilised military methods – casing the bank beforehand, using stop-watches to time the operation, planning getaway routes, etc – to launch a series of successful raids.

On his release in 1933, Dillinger put together his own gang of hardened outlaws and commenced a robbery spree that would pass into legend, hitting multiple banks and even police arsenals (to steal guns, ammunition and bullet-proof vests) across Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and South Dakota. Captured several times, he always managed to escape and continue his activities, chopping and changing his confederates en route (for example, he considered Baby Face Nelson a risk and so cut him loose, but admired Pierpont and worked with him whenever he could).

He successfully stole around $340,000 in total, and engaged in a number of epic gun-battles, leaving ten law officers dead and at least seven critically wounded. Dillinger himself was only believed to have killed one police officer, patrolman Pat O’Malley, during a robbery shootout in East Chicago, though this would undoubtedly, in due course, have sent him to the electric chair.

In some ways this cruel murder belies the myth, because of all the ‘public enemies’ in this era, Dilllinger – either rightly or wrongly – was regarded by the public as the most dashing. This was partly down to his good looks and affable manner with both captives and captors alike, though he is also credited with having spared bank customers during robberies, telling them that he wasn’t after their money, which won him popular support. 

Success was ultimately his undoing, when relentless FBI boss, Melvin Purvis, took up the chase with his well-armed, well-trained G-Men. Prioritising Dillinger above all others, they finally tracked him to the Biograph Theatre, Chicago, in July 1934. Ambushed on the way out, Dillinger drew his weapon, and was shot multiple times. 
   

Lufthansa Heist

Not the biggest armed robbery in criminal history, though it was pretty big by almost any standards, the Lufthansa Heist is probably most infamous for its incredible bloody aftermath and for being one of the few of its kind arranged by the American Mafia.

Much cosier in the world of racketeering, gambling and loan-sharking, the 20th century mob rarely indulged in armed robbery simply because they regarded it as a high-risk activity. And if there were any who were unsure about this, after Lufthansa they’d be in no doubt whatosoever.

However, initially it looked like a great opportunity.

The mastermind behind it was Jimmy ‘the Gent’ Burke, an Irish/American associate of New York’s Lucchese crime family and a successful thief who was always considered a safe bet (he was portrayed unforgetably by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorcese’s movie account of the crime, Goodfellas). When, in 1978, Burke was informed that millions of dollars of US currency, the result of money exchanges for servicemen in West Germany and therefore untraceable, was stored in an easy-to-break vault at Kennedy Airport, he took it to his bosses and commenced preparing what at the time looked like a hugely daring but potentially very lucrative robbery.

In the end, three major syndicates would be connected to the Lufthansa Heist, not just the Luccheses, but the Gambino and Bonanno crime families, as Burke would be contravening their respective territories and therefore owed them each a substantial cut. But the robbery itself was carried out by a team of relative unknowns, Mafia shooters and hardmen all – like the fearsome Tommy DeSimone (another searing performance in Goodfellas, this time from Joe Pesci) – but no one who might be considered indispensible.

Burke, himself, didn’t participate, but planned the raid in fine detail, and rehearsed his team mercilessly. On a frosty December 11, in the early hours of the morning, the crew, with the assistance of key insiders, infiltrated the airport holding area, abducting various employees at gunpoint and advising each one that they knew who they were and where they and their families could be found later, should anyone blab – a classic and dependable Burke tactic. Even then there were risks: had the terrorised captives disobeyed orders, and not waited until 15 minutes after the gang had left with their loot before sounding the alarm, the Port Authority Police might have been able to seal the airport in time. But the hostages had been left in no doubt that they and their families would pay dearly if the escape was impeded.

Ironically though, in the long run it was the team themselves who’d pay.

Burke (right) was stunned when the haul amounted to $6 million in cash and jewellery. It was the biggest robbery on US soil at the time, and this worried him. Knowing it would result in a high-level police investigation, which might invite disaster for the New York crime families, he promptly began eliminating those members of the team and their back-up crew, and even those who simply knew about it who might conceivably talk. Before the following summer, nine people had been executed on Burke’s orders, while several more who’d been involved would die violently over the next few years, ‘whacked’ for various indiscretions. One of these was Tommy DeSimone, who was allegedly tortured and chain-sawed in half.

Such ruthless ‘house-keeping’ didn’t save Burke. Though never convicted of participating in the heist, he was eventually fingered by notorious mobster-turned-informer, Henry Hill, in the murder of one Richard Eaton, a launderer who had skimmed some of the loot (and was hanged in a freezer truck for his trouble), and was sentenced to life imprisonment

Ultimately, the Lufthansa Heist’s fantastic pay-off was a disaster even for its senior supervisors, because it put the New York mob more squarely in police sights than they’d been for decades. Paul Vario, the Lucchese underboss who had authorised the crime, and who Hill also testified against (though for other offences) died in jail in 1988. Jimmy Burke followed him to the grave in 1996.


Great Train Robbery

Without doubt the most legendary armed robbery in British history, and probably one of the most famous in the world – but in truth, for all the wrong reasons.

In the early hours of the morning on August 8, 1963, a team of 15 London heist-men bushwhacked a Royal Mail train en route to London from Glasgow via the West Coast Line. The intention was to steal cash-bags from the HVP (high value packages) compartment, which, as the previous weekend had been a Bank Holiday in England, were expected to contain a total of several millions in cash – a staggering sum in the early 1960s.

The crime went ahead as planned, and initially seemed like a complete success, the robbers, who hadn’t even taken guns with them, getting away with £2.6 million in used and untraceable bank-notes (the mere feat of moving so much cash in such a short time was seemingly admirable, and involved the clever device of stopping the train on Bridego bridge in Buckinghamshire, where the gang formed a human chain to a waiting truck).

When the news broke, it captured the imagination of the whole country. There hadn’t been a major train robbery in the UK since Victorian times, and immediately it was portrayed in the popular press as an astonishing feat of daring. Mental images were conjured of intricate planning beforehand, of Jesse James-type bandits leaping onto the train while it was still in motion, running along the roof, and performing all kinds of heroics and derring-do. Surely, these could only be experts in the field, criminal geniuses and gentleman thieves of the old school, so sure they didn’t want to hurt anyone that they didn’t even take firearms, and yet still getting clean away afterwards, having been rewarded for their sterling efforts with a monumental haul?

But such thinking was fanciful and wildly inaccurate.

Firstly, the team, while comprising experienced thieves and undoubted London characters like Buster Edwards (right) and Bruce Reynolds (left, who led the raid), was not considered to be one of the city’s major firms, and previously had specialised in hitting soft targets. Ronald Biggs, who achieved lasting fame through his decades-long evasion of justice, was a petty-villain whose only real job was to recruit a train driver who could handle the train (in which cause, he palpably failed).

The essential inside information provided to the team, and enabling the crime to happen, came from a self-interested Northern Irish contact known as ‘the Ulsterman’ (later named as postal worker, Patrick McKenna), who took a big chunk of the poceeds and was never caught.

The raid itself, while well executed, included no real feats of daring. The train was stopped by a fake signal light, and the driver, Jack Mills, beaten with an iron bar – which was hardly heroic (and which, though no firearms were used, indicates that the gang were armed with coshes and more than willing to use them).

In addition, they were lucky. The security fixtures on the HVP carriage, which included locks and alarms, were not effective because a reserve carriage was being used, and rather ridiculously, there were no security guards on board. The retired train driver called ‘Old Stan’, who’d been brought along by Biggs (right) to move the captured train to the designated robbery site, was unable to perform his job, and so the injured driver, Jack Mills, was forced to do it, despite being semi-conscious.

The gang’s planning also fell short when it came to the getaway. Lying low at an abandoned farmhouse close to the scene, and only realising when it was almost too late that they’d be snared by the resulting police dragnet, a panicked departure meant they left several of their vehicles behind, and failed to properly clean the hideout of prints, while the ultimate final precaution, burning the place to the ground, was left to an unreliable accomplice, who never performed the task.

Errors like these, along with the tenacity shown by London’s elite Flying Squad, was the doom of the Great Train Robbers, most of whom were eventually arrested and sentenced to exemplary prison sentences – 25-30 years in most cases. Even those like Edwards and Reynolds, who fled abroad, were eventually captured and convicted.

Injured train driver, Jack Mills, suffered brain damage and never fully recovered, dying in 1970. The £250 he received in criminal injury compensation was seen as an outrage compared to the £65,000 paid to Ronnie Biggs’ wife, Chamian, when she sold her story to the papers.  


Brink’s-Mat

Committed at the Heathrow Airport Trading Estate, London, in 1983, the Brink’s-Mat robbery, which saw the loss of £26 million in gold bullion, diamonds and cash, was initially regarded as ‘the crime of the century’, and in many ways, ‘a British Lufthansa’. That latter comparison would, in due course, be much more appropriate than anyone could have imagined at the time. Because not only was the crime conceived of and executed by some of London’s most senior criminal elements, it eventually resulted in a range of arrests, convictions and lengthy prison sentences, but also a string of gangland slayings.

The raid occurred late at night in the November of that year, the crew, led by underworld tough guys Brian Robinson and Micky McAvoy, gaining entry to a warehouse containing properties belonging to Johnson Matthey Ltd. Assistance in this was provided by corrupt security guard, Anthony Black, who also happened to be Robinson’s brother-in-law, but who would later prove to be a weak link in the chain. The rest of the security team were bound hand and foot, and after being drenched in petrol and threatened with lit matches, they gave up the codes to the vault. But the robbers, who were looking for around £3 million in cash, hadn’t expected to discover the bullion, and now found themselves in possession of an absolute fortune.

Though they’d removed it from the premises in under two hours, any triumphalism the gang might have felt at the success of the operation was due to be shortlived.

Black was pressurised by the police, and in his turn implicated Robinson and McAvoy, though neither had exactly kept a low profile, both splashing money around, and McAvoy acquiring two guard-dogs for his new house in Kent, and naming them Brinks and Mat. In the end, it was a no-brainer, both men receiving 25-year sentences.

Police pursuit of the bullion was less rewarding.

To avoid attracting attention by trying to sell pure gold, infamous gangster Kenny Noye was recruited to melt it down and mix it with copper and brass. £13 million’s worth of precious metal was disposed of this way, though Noye was arrested after stabbing to death an undercover detective who was onto his scheme. He evaded conviction for this on the grounds of self-defence, the killing having happened in his own back garden, but was later charged with handling the Brink’s Mat gold and jailed for 14 years. (It was all downhill for Noye after this, when, two years after release, in 1996, he committed murder during a road rage incident, and was sent to prison for life).

Though at least £10 million of the gold remains unaccounted for, much of it still thought to be hidden and awaiting collection, it still went badly wrong for many of those connected to the crime, because the London underworld – as in the case of the Lufthansa Heist – quickly started feeding on its own. Maybe as many as 20 of those connected to the robbery paid the ultimate price, so many in fact that it became known as the ‘Brink’s Mat Curse’. This included John Palmer, a jeweller and bullion-dealer known as ‘Goldfinger’, who was gunned down in the garden of his Essex cottage, and former Great Train Robber, Charlie Wilson who’d by this time diversified into money-laundering, shot dead on the doorstep of his Spanish home, along with his pet dog.

There were other consequences from Brink’s Mat, the enormous haul said to have financed the flooding of Britain with ecstasy, which, more than any other illegal substance, is thought to have persuaded the UK’s most dominant firms that more money is now to be made from narcotics than armed robbery.


North Hollywood Shootout 

In 1995, Michael Mann successfully remade his armed robbery-themed TV movie of 1989, LA Takedown, renaming it Heat, and packing it with star power (the second Robert De Niro movie to be referenced in today’s blog, showing how on the money the great man was when it came to intense crime dramas), and pumping up the action quota massively with a much larger budget.

One of the most impressive sequences involves a bank robbery going wrong, and an immense, spectacular and protracted shootout resulting between the movie’s main hoodlums and the LAPD, which results in the police being overwhelmed by the astonishing level of firepower the villains direct at them, and seemingly half the city suffering demolition in the process.

It’s an amazing scene of excessive violent and rampant lawlessness, which one could thankfully never envisage occurring in real life. Right?

Wrong.

Only two years later, the Bank of America in North Hollywood was robbed by two heavily armed and armoured bandits, whose attempted escape was intercepted by the LAPD, and the ensuing shootout shocked the world, especially as it was screened live and from multiple different angles by numerous TV crews and news stations.

All of the heists in today’s blog ultimately failed, though in most cases the robberies themselves were completed successfully. This entry is the exception to that rule, but the North Hollywood Shootout was so memorable an event that it still figures highly in all lists of the most astonishing violent crimes.

The perpetrators were Larry Phillips, Jr (right). and Emil Mătăsăreanu (left), two hardened armed robbers and gun buffs, who had already killed one guard in a different job, and had become notable to law enforcement for the massive firepower they utilised, which included automatic rifles and improvised explosive devices. Known as the High Incident Bandits, by 1997 the proceeds of their crimes already topped $1 million, but the North Hollywood attack was to be the big one.

On the morning of February 28, they entered the bank, which was located on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, wearing the latest high-tech body-armour, bandoleer belts and pouches containing spare magazines and thousands of rounds of extra ammunition. Their weapons included HK-91 battle-rifles, automatic assault rifles and carbines. But such conspicuous attire was to backfire on the duo badly, when they were spotted by local patrolmen, who immediately summoned reinforcements.

Even inside the bank, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu didn’t have it all their own way. They successfully cowed the staff and customers, and gained access to the vaults, but there’d been a change in recent delivery schedules, and so only a third of the money they’d expected was to be had: approximately $300,000, though even this was rendered unusable when its dye packs detonated (above). Driven to fury, a state of mind in no way assuaged by the phenobarbital they had both taken beforehand, they responded by opening fire at the bank’s fixtures and fittings, doing wholesale damage.

Immediately on leaving, they were challenged by cops now surrounding the bank, but responded with a storm of gunfire. Officers responded in kind, but their pistols and shotguns were no match for the felons’ body-armour. To the disbelief of the everyday citizens passing by, a full-scale gun battle erupted, the robbers advancing steadily, hit repeatedly but driving the cops backwards, leaving them wounded all over the roads and pavements, and blowing their patrol cars to pieces. When a SWAT team finally arrived, 18 minutes of near nonstop gunfire had passed and yet the shootout was still raging, having caused so much carnage that the specialists’ first task was to drive in with an armoured vehicle in order to evacuate the many wounded.

However, despite appearances, the robbers were not immune. Though they fought their way into a nearby parking lot, where they were able to retrieve more weapons and ammunition from their getaway car, they had both by now been severely injured. In the incredulous gaze of the news teams hovering overhead, Philips, shot several times, attempted to escape on foot, making it onto Archwood Street, blazing in all directions before finally taking his own life. Mătăsăreanu, bleeding profusely, drove a short distance in the getaway car, before hijacking another vehicle. Unable to operate a stick-shift, he continued to put up stiff resistance, holding the encroaching SWAT men off for almost another five minutes, before, too badly wounded to shoot anymore, he surrendered – only to die from blood-loss in the ambulance.

Some 2,000 rounds of ammunition were fired by the robbers, and 12 police officers and eight civilians were seriously injured. The Medal of Valour was later awarded to 19 of the cops involved, but questions were asked about what on Earth kind of society might find itself in need of police officers who are armed and armoured like combat troops.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE FORCE 
by Don Winslow (2017)

It’s a strange thing, but given that this epic-in-concept and epic-in-execution police thriller fills its 400+ pages with furious action, intense character clashes, crackling dialogue, emotional tangles and moral complexities that basically leave you breathless, not to mention some mind-bending ‘revelations’ about life and death deep in the NYPD, it all kicks off with an event that occurs five months before the book’s main narrative even starts, when the elite Manhattan North Special Taskforce, known simply as ‘Da Force’, pulls off a major drugs bust.

It’s the prize of prizes for streetwise Detective Sergeant Denny Malone, and his cadre of ultra-loyal sidekicks, Phil Russo, Bill ‘Big Monty’ Montague and young Billy O’Neil. Such a prize should have made their names as New York detectives forever. Except that this isn’t the way things work in this neck of the woods. The team, who naturally are corrupt to a man, stand by while Malone calmly executes Dominican cartel boss, Diego Peña, who otherwise would get in the way of their proposed theft of his product – but before they can make off with a very sizable portion of the haul, young Billy himself dies when he accidentally absorbs pure heroin through a series of fresh cuts.

These are the highs and lows of life in Da Force. They’ve lost yet another of their own, but at least the rest of the guys, who are near enough all family men, will have no problem meeting medical bills and putting their kids through college. Unfortunately, the wheels put in motion by this act of criminality don’t stop turning here; in fact, they spin faster and faster and ever more out of control.

We roll forward now to the following Christmas, and find the Manhattan North Special Taskforce freewheeling as always along the high-risk path of keeping the mean streets of Harlem clean and at the same time enriching themselves at the expense of the underworld, always cleverly – admirably so, in fact – but often violently too.

Malone is the heart and unofficial leader of this small, but very efficient crew. An Irish cop descended from a line of Irish cops, heroism and defiance are in his blood – his brother, Liam, a fireman, died on 9/11. Meanwhile, Malone’s estranged wife and kids live in a kind of safe ‘Copland’ enclave on Staten Island and are well supplied with everything they need, because though he’s a badass of colossal proportions, Malone also knows what matters to him.

Little wonder he sees himself as the King of Manhattan North, a kind of backstreet lawgiver, underappreciated for sure, but nevertheless handing down a real brand of justice as opposed to the vanilla stuff you get from the courts.

In truth, Denny Malone is a character we’ve seen before, though in my experience never quite as multi-dimensionally as he is portrayed here. He is an antihero, yes; he is brutal, yes; he is a casual user of profane and racist language, yes. But he is also brave, smart, tough and possesses bags of flawless instinct and low-key political acumen. He is also unswervingly loyal to his brother cops, and though it may seem like a huge contradiction, he genuinely believes that he is doing the right thing.

To Malone, small-scale police corruption is standard behaviour. Its proceeds are only what these men and women are owed in return for the danger and horror they face daily, and represent a small fraction of the reward they know they will never get from the uncaring power-structure above them, the one side of which is too busy acquiring privilege for itself to view them as anything other than expendable pawns in a deadly game of chess, the other side of which, politically motivated in a different way (as embodied by the likes of Black Lives Matter – yes, The Force, though a timeless tale, is a very current novel), views them as scapegoats for an unequal society, who should be made accountable for the establishment’s many sins.

Even so, street-smart and righteous though they may consider themselves to be, the Force’s cowboy lifestyle is never going to be a particularly safe option. They take a big chance with young Billy’s replacement, greenhorn Dave Levin, but the real dangers are posed by the likes of seriously dirty and very stupid cops like Rafael Torres, who are many in number (at least, they are in this novel) and who never cover their backs sufficiently, a folly for which everyone – and that means everyone! – is soon going to pay.

There is one other factor, though, which helps to blind Malone’s otherwise all-seeing eye to this very real weakness in the system: everyone else is as corrupt as he and his buddies are, if not worse.

In The Force, Don Winslow presents us with a world of law enforcement where it’s almost the norm for police officers to put things in their pockets when they attend crime scenes, to only ever hand over half of the drugs they seize, to steal stolen money again rather than return it, to tax the criminal lower orders and take bribes from those who are higher up. And it isn’t just the police. The judiciary and the political administration of the city are up to their necks in dodgy dealing as well. Everyone, it seems, resents those who have power over them, everyone thinks they are undervalued and underpaid, everyone considers that they only purloin what they are fully entitled to, and almost everyone is content to turn a blind eye to the next office along’s countless indiscretions on the understanding that this favour will be returned and the process perpetuated.

Almost everyone. 

And this is the beginning of Denny Malone’s undoing. Because though he’s constantly able to outfox the squeaky-clean but largely uninformed Captain Sykes, a crusading internal investigations unit then turns up, comprising the untouchable feds, O’Dell and Weintraub, and the superhot, supercool attoney, Isobel Paz. When this new, energised and higly powered outfit is able to implicate the ne’er-do-well cop in corrupt practises through his attempts to negotiate a crooked legal deal, there is a dramatic shift of power.

Suddenly, Malone finds himself in big trouble. He can get himself off the hook if he will serve up all his corrupt pals, but he obviously doesn’t want to do that – these are fellow cops, his blood-brothers, much closer than the kind of run-of-the-mill buddies that civies have. Through various Machievellian intrigues, he finally brokers a maybe-acceptable deal, in which he will turn over the city’s corrupt lawyers. But even more Machievellian intrigues further up the food-chain contrive to confound this.

Meanwhile, the everyday problems of cop life are also becoming an issue. There is huge racial tension in the city after a white officer shot a black kid. Major disturbances threaten while the Grand Jury deliberates, and even Claudette, Malone’s beautiful black girlfriend, wants to put distance between them both. At the same time, routine turf wars are in the offing between gangs who formerly were at peace. And then there is the uber-ruthless Peña cartel, from whom Malone stole at the very beginning of this dramatic tale. They don’t forgive, or forget …

There is no doubt that Don Winslow is the modern master of the broad-canvas crime story. And yet, his material is never less than completely shocking.

While he apparently worked for months with the NYPD to gain the special insights needed to create this enormous and enormously powerful saga of right and wrong and the multiple grey areas in between, it ultimately casts the New York police in a very bad light. At times, I was gobsmacked by the open assertion that so much of the city’s towering law-enforcement, legal and political structure is bent. The innocent soul within me even came to doubt the accuracy of this, though in the long run, whether it’s a true depiction or not doesn’t really matter, because it gives us a tumultuous backdrop to this most enthralling study of a man (and his world) on the edge of an abyss.

Okay, we may have been here before. Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys is one obvious source of inspiration (Da Force do booze-ups, or rather ‘Bowling Nights’ as they call them, in the most extreme and joyous way imaginable), but I caught more than a few glimpses of The Shield as well (Denny Malone even shares Vic Mackey’s penchant for jeans and black T-shirts!), while in the character of the lovely, heroin-addicted nurse, Claudette, there was a glimpse of the doomed Isabella in Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache, the Bronx. But really none of that matters, because The Force goes much further along the line than any of those other great pieces of work, with a unique and muscular identity all of its own. In fact, the experience of reading it is so intoxicating, so real, that you’re basically out there on the streets with the guys themselves, kicking tenement doors down, busting the ‘mopes’ and the ‘skels’.

Each page is stacked with completely convincing NYPD detail; the procedures and protocols are all there, the attitudes and language – the language has drawn some criticism for projecting a clichéd New York cop tone, and one brickbat I sympathised with took issue with the cops’ apparent belief that they could do terrible things to and say awful stuff about ethnic communities because they had earned the right – but I still found it completely compelling.

The rooting for the bag guys thing is always something of a challenge. But not here. Not because they are softened by being tough guys with hearts of gold. They haven’t got hearts of gold; but they’ve been sucked into a negative way of life almost from the word-go, which offers no ways out, and yet because it allows them to beat, cripple, blackmail and kill the city’s very worst elements – yes, the vigilante element is strong with this one! – they are persuaded that it’s all okay. And that has a similar effect on us, albeit briefly.

These guys really are the strong arm of the law, we think, the thin blue line, civilisation’s only real defence against a horde of beasts. To deal with violence, you must show … well, violence.

Hardly an ideal scenario, of course. Few of us would actually approve of it. But in The Force you at least see how it happened. In Denny Malone’s own words:

‘How do you cross the line? Step by step.’

After his emotionally-wrenching The Cartel, in which we watched a beautiful society be systematically torn apart by criminals who were more like wild dogs, The Force is a huge change of pace and direction for Don Winslow. Yes, it’s savage, hardbitten and deals with edgy characters at the sharpest end of human experience, displaying both the best of them and the worst, but whereas The Cartel was a very serious statement about the plight of a country competely at the mercy of corrupt officials and organised crime, The Force is more of a personal experience – the progress of a damaged but likeable soul forging his way through a world of darkness, and yet, though constantly seeming to do the wrong thing, gradually edging closer and closer to that redemptive moment when he finally does the right thing (oh, and with plenty of frenzied and explosive action along the way).

Read The Force. That’s all I’m going to say. You don’t have to be a fan of crime, thriller, mystery or cop fiction. As long as you don’t mind being smacked in the face repeatedly by prose as tough as Brooklyn brickwork, you should find this novel a major, major experience. 

And now, as usual, though it’s utterly pointless, I’m going to try and cast it. I say it’s pointless, because the book apparently sold to Hollywood before it was even published, and for no small fee (not jealous at all). But I’ve not heard much about it as yet, so I’m going to try and get my suggestions in first. If Don decides that my ideas are better than whoever gets the casting director gig, he knows where to send the cheque. Here we go:

Det. Denny Malone – Chris Hemsworth
Det. Phil Russo – John Bernthal
Det. Bill ‘Big Monty’ Montague – Forest Whitaker
Sheila Malone – Jessica Chastain
Claudette – Gabrielle Union
O’Dell – Ben McKenzie
Lou Savino – Joe Mantegna
Benjamin ‘Nasty Ass’ Coombes – Tyler James Williams
Stan Weintraub – John C. McGinley
Isobel Paz – Eva Longoria
Gerard Berger – William Fichtner
Det. Dave Levin – Justin Long
Det. Rafael Torres – Javier Bardem
Captain Sykes – Don Cheadle
DeVon Carter – Lance Reddick
Janice Tenelli – Michelle Rodriguez
Insp. Bill McGivern – Jon Voight
Mary Hinman – Ann Dowd
Carlos Castillo – Steven Bauer
Bryce Anderson – James Cromwell
Stevie Bruno – Michael Badalucco
Diego Pena – Luis Guzman

(I know … what a cast that would be. But then … what a novel).

Just for your interest, the two images used today that dont actually speak for themselves, the armed robbers with the horror masks, and the gunmen emerging from the Bank of America, are lifted from two crime movies. Respectively: The Last Heist (2016), and 44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shootout (2003). 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Just how cool are those great book covers?

The focus is squarely on crime fiction today.

A timely thing, I suppose, with the publication of my next crime novel, SHADOWS, just around the corner. But we’re also going to have a bit of a chat this week about book covers – and what makes a good one. To illustrate things, but also for a bit of fun, I’ve put together a gallery of my 25 best ever crime novel covers. You can find that a bit further down. 

Also on the subject of crime fiction – but at the really hard end of the spectrum – I’m offering a detailed review of Sam Hawken’s amazingly bleak and chilling debut novel, THE DEAD WOMEN OF JUAREZ. As usual, you can find that at the lower end of today’s column.

Cover story

The first thing to say is that it’s amazing how divisive book covers can be. They don’t just divide fans and readers, they can divide writers from agents and agents from publishers.

Essentially, a book cover is a work of visual art, so there is always going to be a degree of dispute. It’s in the eye of the beholder; it’s a purely subjective exercise. Of course, this doesn’t stop writers being upset when their books are allocated artwork they don’t like, though by this stage of the operation, the publishers are generally more interested in what the readers think, and they’ll have attempted to anticipate this by taking detailed reports from their market-research people beforehand, will have studied the sales figures for recent similar products, and so forth (something the writer will almost never have done).

Of course, it it all goes wrong then, and the public don’t buy, the publishers can still fall back on that timeless and excellent adage: You can’t judge a book by its cover … which will likely do nothing to placate the disgruntled writer who hated the cover in the first place, though the irony is that this famous old saying so often reflects reality.

You really CAN’T judge a book by its cover, even though we’re all regularly guilty of doing exactly that. It’s astounding how often a poor book is ‘bigged up’ by an extraordinary cover, though maybe it’s more frequently the case that a incredible book is lost behind a rather ordinary cover.   

To get to the root of this knotty problem, the real question that perhaps needs addressing here is what purpose does a book’s cover actually serve?

Well, to start with – and this is purely my own opinion, of course (though I always welcome others) – the cover’s job is not to paraphrase what’s in the book. Nor is it to tease you about what’s in the book. It’s not even to try and sell the book.

The book’s cover has one purpose only: to attract your attention while you’re wandering the endless aisles of books-for-sale; to literally make you stop in your tracks, take the book from the shop shelf and examine it more closely. At that point, the cover’s job is done. From here on, the back-cover blurb takes over. Yes, it’s the blurb, not the cover, whose job it is to make you buy.

But the upshot of all this is that the best book covers must, at the very least, be eye-catching. An effective cover has got to depict something that will hook you in an instant. And that doesn’t have to be something totally relevant to the book, though I think most publishers would consider it a bit naughty if the cover was completely irrelevant. In my view – and again it’s only my personal view – that would be mis-selling the book.

For example, check out this famously outrageous Brazilian edition of Stephen King’s The Shining. Now, there is a strong and attractive woman in the The Shining – Wendy Torrance, but I don’t remember full-on glam and glitzy jewellery having much part to play.

Only the good stuff

But I digress. We’re less interested today in trashy covers, and more interested in really good ones. I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to date to have had what I consider to be some pretty effective artwork gracing the covers of my novels. I think my favourite is still SACRIFICE (2013), the second Mark Heckenburg novel, which concerns a series of kidnappings followed by sacrificial murders occurring in concert with certain dates in the calendar. The original Avon cover can be viewed at the top of this column, and strongly hints at the crime/horror combo which made this book the fastest selling pre-order in HarperCollins history at the time. 

But I’m also a big fan of the jacket to my new title, SHADOWS, which can be seen here. This is number two in the Lucy Clayburn series, and has perhaps a more down-to-Earth emphasis, throwing a young female cop into the tough male world of the Manchester Robbery Squad and pitting her against a gang of relentless and ultra-violent blaggers.

But I don’t want to use this blog just to talk about me all the time, and, as I mentioned at the top, I thought today might be an opportunity to throw the net more widely and focus on some of the other truly excellent book covers that I’ve encountered over the years. This blog normally concerns itself with what I call ‘dark fiction’ – which is a general term for a very big field. So today, for the sake of brevity, we’re going to concentrate on crime fiction covers. My intent, in a couple of weeks or so, is to look at the best thriller covers, perhaps after that the best horror covers, and then maybe the best fantasy, the best science fiction and so forth.

But, as I said, for today, we’re sticking solely with what in my opinion, in no particular order, are …   


The best 25 crime fiction covers ever …

(One quick point: I’ve only selected this gallery from English language editions – if I was to scour the whole world of published works, I couldn’t even get close to assembling a realistic list within an acceptable time-frame).

1. POPPET - Mo Hayder 
(Bantam, 2013)


One of the creepiest crime covers ever jackets this seventh outing for DI Jack Caffery, in which he investigates a series of ghastly incidents occurring inside a secure hospital for the criminally insane. It’s every bit as disturbing as its cover suggest, but what can I say?, Hayder doesn’t do vanilla crime ...



2. NIGHT DOGS - Kent Anderson 
(Bantam, 1998)


Sheer savagery promises from this jacket, and that’s exactly what you get when a battle-scarred Vietnam vet trades his combat fatigues for a badge with Portland PD, only to find the gunfire-riddled North Precinct one of the most dangerous beats in the city, especially when not every other cop you’re working with has got your back ...


3. THE HOODS - Harry Grey  
(Crown, 1952)


A very to-the-point illustration makes no bones about what you’re going to find in this largely fact-based study of a crime syndicate’s rise to power in New York City of the bootlegger era. Controversial on its release, and very hard to find now, though most crime fans will know it from the epic movie adaptation: Once Upon a Time in America ...



4. HALLOWEEN PARTY - Agatha Christie 
(Fontana, 1980)


Originally published in 1969 by the Collins Crime Club, this later but famously horrific cover from Fontana nicely encapsulates an equally horrific premise, one of the most chilling ever in fact, with ex-Brussels police detective-turned-PI, Hercule Poirot, called on to investigate the deliberate drowning of a child in an apple-bobbing tub during a tempestuous Halloween party ...


5. THE AXEMANS JAZZ - Ray Celestin 
(Pan, 2015)


As you’d probably expect from this amazing artwork, the New Orleans of 1919 - the sights, the sounds and even the smells - come vibrantly to life in this amazing debut novel. It also pits a trio of disparate individuals against the true life maniac who terrorised the city during that long hot summer, the notorious Mad Axeman ...


6. ENTER THE DARK - Chris Thomas 
(Bloodhound, 2017)


Just in case you needed reminding about those faceless enemies of civilisation who always seem to lurk in the dark places of the internet, up steps Chris Thomas with a cover that more than does his new book justice. Mix advanced proficiency online, high-level cybercrime and a frightened world’s unspoken desire for vigilante justice, and you have a real terror tale. Here is is ...


7. GET CARTER - Ted Lewis 
(Soho Syndicate, 2014)



Originally published as the seminal Jacks Return Home in 1970 by Michael Joseph (and that was a pretty spiffing cover too), this is the latest re-issue of the crime classic, and my favourite to date. Grimy northern England of the late ’60s is the setting as London enforcer Jack Carter returns home to investigate the mysterious death of his brother ... 


8. PICK YOUR VICTIM - Pat McGerr 
(Doubleday, 1947)


An odd cover given the premise of the story, but undeniably eerie and eye-catching. The novel, now recognised as a classic of crime fiction’s ‘golden age’, features a bunch of military men on a remote base, and sees them passing the time by piecing together a murder mystery, and its solution, from fragments of newspaper packaging. Ingeniously clever ...


9. DIRTBAGS - Eryk Pruitt 
(Immortal Ink, 2014) 


More than a hint on offer here of the Southern Noir nightmare that erupts when two trailer trash losers, each one a violent psychopath in his own right, dream of being serial killers, and one day get the chance to make fantasy reality when they are hired to carry out a brutal assassination. Yes, it’s absolutely as hard and gritty as this jacket will lead you to expect ...


10. THE DOLL MAKER - Richard Montanari 
(Sphere, 2015)


If this one implies that you’re in for a tale of ‘crime meets body-horror’, then you aren’t far wrong, as Montanari’s regular detectives, Byrne and Balzano, scour Philadelphia in pursuit of the charming, erudite and completely crazy Mr Marseille, who will do anything for his beloved Anabelle, no matter how horrifying ... 


11. HOW THE DEAD LIVE - Derek Raymond 
(Melville International, 2011)


First published by Secker and Warburg in 1986 as Book 3 in the Factory series, but repackaged here, this is a suitably oblique cover for a rather oblique novel. Philosophy and violence entwine as an unnamed but very hard-boiled detective sergeant investigates a disappearance from a scenic English village which, in truth, is rotten to the core ...


12. THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY - Patricia Highsmith 
(WW Norton, 2008)


Known by many for the 1999 movie version starring Matt Damon, this classic 1955 psychological thriller still stands the test of time, hence the above re-issue and its rather marvellous new cover. Originally published by Coward-McCann, it tells the tale of a young conman who murders a rich playboy, assumes his identity and settles back to enjoy the good life. Except it can’t be that easy ...


13. THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE - George V Higgins 
(Picador, 2010)


A ‘says it all’ jacket for the 40th Anniversary edition of this underworld masterpiece. Originally published in 1972, it tells the distinctly non-glamorous tale of a small-time gunrunner working for the Irish mob, who, to save his own skin, turns informer for Boston law-enforcement, making himself plenty of deadly enemies in the process ...


14. THE BONE KEEPER - Luca Veste 
(Simon & Schuster, 2018)


A sneak peek of what is likely to be one of next year’s big releases. Luca Veste steps away from his Murphy and Rossi crime series to produce a stand-alone nightmare (the horror elements of which are clearly signalled by the image above) in which Liverpool cops gather gory evidence suggesting that semi-mythical bogeyman, the Bone Keeper, might actually be real ...


15. THE DEVIL - Ken Bruen 
(Minotaur, 2010)


A suitably infernal cover for no. 8 in the Jack Taylor series. For the uninitiated, anti-hero Taylor, a hard-drinking, self-loathing mess of an Irish PI, finally meets his ultimate nemesis when his investigation following a crazed killing leads him into conflict with an enemy who may be the Dark One himself ...


16. THE ASHES OF LONDON - Andrew Taylor
(HarperCollins, 2017)


As a history buff, this is one of the best covers I’ve ever seen. For the very first time, Scotland Yard - in this case a propaganda office in the Palace of Whitehall - is called on to investigate a chilling ritual murder. The main problem though, is that it’s 1666, and London is burning to the ground. A classic mystery, set against a backdrop of sedition, sectarianism and simmering revolutionary fervour ...


17. MISSING - Sam Hawken
(Serpents Tail, 2014)


You want Satanic levels of evil, don’t read books about the Devil, check out the Mexican cartels. The voodoo-esque cover here, richly redolent of gang violence, pseudo-religion and nihilistic horror, makes a perfect jacket for this amazing effort by the author featured in today’s ‘Thrillers, Chillers’. A Texan searches for his wayward stepdaughters when they go missing over the border. Utterly grim ..


18. VILLAIN - Shuichi Yoshida
 (Pantheon, 2010)


Great metaphorical image for a book that I, personally, would have had no idea how to illustrate. When a young saleswoman is murdered, an entire town comes under scrutiny - and is found lacking on almost every level. An Asian Noir by a very acclaimed Japanese writer, but at the same time, a ‘no prisoners’ slice of penetrating social commentary ...


19. THE HOLLOW MAN - John Dickson Carr 
(Hamish Hamilton, 1935)


If this one doesn’t make you buy the book, we might as well all go home, but I shall try to encourge you anyway. Carr, known as one of the greatest suspense authors of his generation, presents us with a bamboozling conundrum, which, even now, is regarded as so clever a ‘locked room’ mystery that it is widely seen, even in the 21st century, as a textbook for crime writers ...


20. A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE - Lawrence Block
(William Morrow, 1991)


If this image makes you think that whatever the outcome of this novel, it ain’t going to be an easy ride ... well, you’ve guessed it. Another outing for Matt Scudder, Block’s tired but morally upright NYPD-turned-PI, who here investigates the murder of a depraved rich man’s wife, a case that takes him on a warts-and-all tour of the Big Apple’s sex-for-sale underground. Strong stomachs required ...


21. MURDER AS A FINE ART - David Morrell
(Mulholland, 2013)


Top hats, gaslights and ghoulish slayings in Victorian London. That’s what you expect with a cover like this, and yes ... that’s exactly what you get. David Morrell takes us convincingly back to the mid-Dickensian era in this first Thomas de Quincey novel, evoking the horror of the true life Ratcliffe Highway Murders with a series of fictional copycat crimes decades later. Totally immersive mystery.


22. RUPTURE - Ragnar Jonasson
(Orenda, 2017)


Another slice of Icelandic Noir from an author who is rapidly becoming the master of that form. Every box is ticked: a bleak world, a small, isolated community, a long-ago mystery which has never been resolved, a current crime spree echoing it, lots of unspoken secrets and a growing terrible threat that may render all of this redundant. It does exactly what it says on the tin ...


23. MURDERABILIA - Craig Robertson
(Simon & Schuster, 2017)


With his detective partner in bed, pregnant, Glasgow crime reporter Tony Winter (a Robertson regular) takes centre-stage when another horrible murder needs investigating. This time, though, the case touches on levels of darkness previously untapped, specifically the gruesome trade in crime memorabilia as perpetrated on the Deep Web. Yet again, the cover tells you all you need to know ...


24. GREEN RIVER RISING - Tim Willocks
(Avon, 1994)


A fearful insider’s view of a terrifying prison riot, as engineered by a madman in one of the toughest jails Texas has to offer. Probably the most intense novel on this list, but very human too, the various maniacs given to us in full 3D rather than as evil cardboard cut-outs. (Not sure if this was the original hardback cover, or a later version. Perhaps some kind soul can enlighten me?) ...


25. RED HARVEST - Dashiell Hammett
(Alfred Knopf, 1929)


Hammett’s first crime novel, and still one of his best. The legendary ‘Continental Op’, a tough-as-teak private eye tackles the various goon squads who have taken charge of an industrial city on America’s West Coast. As hard-boiled as it gets, unstinting in the matters of murder, violence, drugs, alcohol, etc. But if this awsome period cover doesn’t draw you in, frankly, nothing will ...

*

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE DEAD WOMEN OF JUAREZ 
by Sam Hawken (2012)

Ciudad Juárez is a Mexican border-town where something akin to a national disaster is being played out.

Since the early 1990s (in real life as well as in this powerful work of fiction), at least 5,000 young women, mostly prostitutes, students or assembly line employees in the maquiladoras – US-owned car-making plants where sweatshop conditions are the norm – have vanished. In many cases they have never been seen again, but a significant number have reappeared in shallow graves or on city dumps, murdered and displaying signs of extreme sexual torture.

Whether it’s the work of a serial killer, or multiple serial killers, or dope gangs, or sex tourists, or who knows what, it’s a hideous mystery which endures right to this day.

It’s difficult to understand how something like this can go on unchecked in the 21st century, but Juárez is a town with all kinds of problems, not least the cartels who fight each other daily up and down its bullet-scarred streets, the persistence of corruption in institutions like the police and local government, the prevalence of drugs and drug addicts, and the hordes of reckless American turistas who flood across the border every evening to drink and whore themselves senseless.

It is against this tragic but hellish backdrop that Texas author, Sam Hawken, tells his tale of two deeply-flawed men: Kelly Courter, an American boxer now long past his best, and Detective Rafael Sevilla, an alcoholic narcotics cop who is close to retirement after a career (and a lifetime!) during which he feels he’s achieved nothing.

Courter and Sevilla are as unlikely a pair of heroes as you could meet.

The former fled the States to evade a likely lengthy jail sentence, and now has a heroin dependency, which, though he’s only in his 30s, long ago ruined his boxing career. These days, just to be able to support himself (and buy smack!), Courter rents himself out as a human punchbag to unscrupulous backstreet boxing promoters like the verminous Ortiz – who put him in the ring against eager up-and-comers, where he suffers the unbridled hatred of the crowd and takes some bone-crunching beatings. The one light in his life is Paloma, his girlfriend, a fearless activist with Mujeres Sin Voces, a self-help organisation seeking justice for the legions of murdered women, and whose drugs-dealing brother, Estéban, he occasionally helps by providing a white face by which to lure nervous American customers.

It is through this connection that we first meet the honest but drink-enfeebled cop, Sevilla, who is constantly leaning on Courter to get him to give up his and Estéban’s supplier. Courter resists, of course, and there isn’t much Sevilla can do about that, or even is motivated to do, if he’s honest – because his life too has been irreparably damaged by the plague of ‘feminicide’, which, among so many others, has claimed both his daughter and his granddaughter.

As such, neither Courter nor Sevilla, nor even Estéban lead happy and fulfilled lives, but things get a whole lot worse when Paloma, who on several occasions has stood up to the menacing gangland figures constantly circling Mujeres Sin Voces, also disappears. If this isn’t enough, as neither Courter nor Estéban have adequate alibis – Courter was on yet another drugs binge at the time! – they are taken into custody as suspects by the monstrously violent Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia, who, while he’s pretty incompetent when it comes to collaring gangsters and sex-murderers, likes nothing better than to brutalise confessions out of the little fish who drop his way.

Even Sevilla, who by now has developed a reasonably amicable relationship with Courter, can do nothing to help. When he turns to Adriana Quintero, the almost impossibly well-groomed prosecutor attached to the Special Task Force for the Investigation of Crimes Against Women, and pleads Courter’s innocence, he is greeted with utter indifference; Quintero’s real job, it seems, is to make it look as if Juárez is being served by the law.

Sevilla realises that only one route is open to him. Somehow or other, he must do the unfeasible, and bring the real perpetrators of the Juárez ‘feminicides’ to justice …

The first thing that struck me about The Dead Women of Juárez, Sam Hawken’s debut novel, is that it isn’t your typical crime-thriller. I’ve seen it described variously as ‘hard-boiled’, as ‘a border noir’, as ‘a classic murder-mystery’, and while there are aspects of all those in there – hard-drinking detective, Sevilla, and battered boxer, Courter, wouldn’t be out of place in any Chandler or Mickey Spillane – the overwhelming catastrophe that is actually occurring in Juárez basically takes centre-stage.

And that’s the main point. Because this relentless spate of unsolved murders is a real thing, and because the real city in which the novel takes place is every bit as dusty and down-at-heel as Sam Hawken describes it here, it would seem indelicate, if not downright trite, to classify this novel as anything resembling pulp fiction. It’s a rattling good story – there’s no question about that, and Hawken’s lean, mean prose keeps it bouncing along at pace. But the whole narrative aches with a deep-felt sadness, which can only stem from the real life horrors of that woe-begotten burg.

And it’s quite clear that Hawken wrote his book fully mindful of this issue.

His approach is observational rather than judgemental. Whether it be the extreme inequality of wealth on display here (some folk living in ‘cartons’, while super-powered businessmen like Rafa Madrigal, and his vile son, Sebastian, own ranches and private golf courses), the rash crowds of American kids who flock across the border to party and get high, or the armies of dealers, hookers and hustlers who cater to them, he simply describes things the way they are, rather than calling down fire and brimstone on it. Even the ongoing murder spree is brought to us subtly, Hawken not sitting us down to lecture us, but gradually drawing it to our attention via the clusters of wooden crosses we see standing on wasteland now and then, or the flyblown ‘missing’ posters adorning streetlights and telegraph poles.

This, he shows us – without really needing to say it – is the tragedy of modern Mexico.

Poverty and crime are the norm. Murder is so common that people are no longer shocked; they simply live their lives around it, getting on any way they can. Even Mexico’s crime-lords and their roaming gangs of gunmen are regarded as an everyday occupational hazard.

But while that’s the way of normality in Ciudad Juárez, for the rest of us it’s seismically terrifying. You find yourself shuddering more with each page turned, appalled that such injustice and exploitation could ever exist in the modern world. The desolation of all the main characters’ lives is palpable. It extends to the lesser characters too: the scores of bereaved parents and siblings protesting futilely on barren street-corners; the dead-eyed workers trudging in for yet another long shift in hot, dirty factories; those people who live in cartons.

In all these respects, The Dead Women of Juárez is an unforgettable read. It is dispiriting and distressing – just when you think one awful thing too many has happened, another, even worse thing comes along. The violence and cruelty is more visceral and in-your-face than almost any reader could be comfortable with. However, none of this means that there isn’t going to be a reckoning of sorts. It certainly doesn’t mean that Rafael Sevilla, finally galvanised to take a long-overdue revenge on the enemies of his town, won’t get his act together.

To say more on that would be a spoiler, but The Dead Women of Juárez isn’t just a warts-and-all study of modern-day despair; it’s a multi-layered, fast-moving piece of docu-fiction, superbly written and while not exactly entertaining, ultimately very, very satisfying. Okay, it may not be true to call this book a typical crime-thriller, but that certainly does not mean that it doesn’t reach a very thrilling conclusion.

Another one I highly recommend, though with the caveat that it’s more an existentialist nightmare than a murder mystery, and that even in that brutal guise, it pulls absolutely no punches. 

And now, as usual, I’m going to be bold enough to try and cast this one in advance of it ever coming to the movie or TV screen. I’m not sure whether it’s been optioned or not, but hey … this is only an exercise. Like anyone would listen to me, anyway. Here are my picks for the leads:

Detective Rafael Sevilla – Antonio Banderas
Kelly Courter – Wentworth Miller (older than in the book, but he doesn’t look it)
Ortiz – Sergi Lopez
Esteban – Pablo Cruz
Paloma – Angelique Boyer
Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia – Alberto Estrella
Adriana Quintero – Blanca Soto
Rafa Madrigal – Miguel Sandoval
Sebastian Madrigal – Gael Garcia Bernal