Drive by Mark West

There’s an old joke that goes like this: “What this difference between a porcupine and an Audi? A porcupine’s pricks are on the outside.” Imagine if the pricks that normally drive an Audi were replaced by Alex and his droogs and now you’ve got the basis for Mark West’s “Drive” (Near to the Knuckle). The terror is always increasing as the Audi and its occupants torment an English village’s late-night party goers, it’s part “Duel” and part “A Clockwork Orange”.

I’ve jumped a little ahead in “Drive”, so let’s circle back. The book opens at a party with David, who has been in training for his company, stands glumly with a drink in hand thinking about how he’s going to get home tomorrow after his class. He runs into his friend Karen who pawns off her friend Natasha (or Nat) on him. The party winds down and David, being the ever English gentlemen, offers to drive Nat home. With a renegade Audi prowling the streets, things are about to quite dangerous for this unsuspecting pair.

West’s “Drive” doesn’t even reach 30,000 words but in its short eight chapters, West fills the novella with heightened tension as David and Nat try to outrun the thugs in the Audi. Every time they believe themselves to be safe, the Audi returns like a Great White circling a broken down boat. To his credit, West rarely lets them see the Audi approaching. First, they only hear “the heavy, low thud of hardcore bass” which builds up slowly along with their dread and anxiety. Then the panic arrives when the Audi’s high beams flash on directly behind them.

Mark West’s “Drive” is a taut pulpy horror novella filled with suburban fears of aimless violence. “Drive” would pair well with a weekend filled with watching ’70s B-movies.

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Her Name Is Mercie by Chris Roy

Chris Roy’s “Her Name is Mercie” (Near to the Knuckle) is a novella and a small collection of short stories. The eponymous novella is at times great and then other times bordering on a mess. Maybe it was the frenetic pace of Mercie’s life, but there were paragraphs and scene changes that felt jumbled. I understood the protagonist’s grief—her parents shot to death by the police—but I found her response a bit stretched. The parts that were good in “Her Name is Mericie” were good enough that I finished and I continued on reading Roy’s short stories. I was quite pleased that I did.

Roy shines with his short stories. Though not necessarily crime stories, they’re more horror than anything else, all four are well done and tight. Re-Pete is the tale of a child with severe OCD and how his mother and her boyfriend try to deal with it. In the story Hunger, two teenagers’ father has died. The daughter and her dog Hunger head out in their boat like she and her father used to do and then things take a turn.

She sat behind the wheel and found herself staring at the seat next to her, it’s deep impression. Sliding into it she looked around. Light headed, her pulse beat against the arm of the chair from her wrist. Chopping waves struck the pontoon she was looking over, spray misting her arms and hair. Hunger whined and clawed his way over the titling deck, in between the seats. His wet nose snuffled her leg, pushed up her shorts.

“We can’t be… I’m not sure…” Her ponytail swung left, right. She pointed at the horizon, finger bathed with green cutting through yellow, sky hinting at blue. “If that’s east, then the island is… We came from the north.” Hair pulled loose from the tie, slim fingers sinking into it. Standing, she turned in a slow circle. There was no land in site.

Hunger whined, lay at her feet.

“We’re not screwed just yet, boy.”

Libby’s Hands is an outright horror tale told during Halloween. And Roy’s collection ends up with Marsh Madness, a story of a family living on the edge of a swamp with an alligator that patrols the shores of their land. “Her Name is Mercie” might not be the complete package, but these four short stories that scrape along the edges of our humanity, where our fear feeds and grows, are perversely wonderful.

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Meat Bubbles and Other Stories by Tom Leins

Meat Bubbles & Other Stories by Tom LeinsIf the hard-boiled edge of Mickey Spillane’s “I, the Jury” and the drug-infused rantings of William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch” fused together in a whiskey-soaked opiate haze and procreated a demented crime fiction writer, Tom Leins would be that aborted fetus.

Leins writes with a strong vile style and his short story collection “Meat Bubbles and Other Stories” (Near to the Knuckle) does not follow standard mystery decorum. If that’s your jam then your face may melt when you begin reading this book.  However, if you like syphilis-ridden whores, depraved drug use, and unprovoked brutal beatings, “Meat Bubbles” should be on the top of your TBR.

At this point, the reader may be thinking the reviewer is joking or exaggerating. I’m not. Seriously, I’m not. If I haven’t dissuaded you yet, this is the first sentence of the eponymous story should, “I carefully peel up my shirtsleeve with bloody fingers. The scalpel wound across my left arm looks like a splayed cunt.”

Now that they’re gone, let’s go on with it. Leins’s stories don’t exist on the edge where crime and civility meet, they burst through it to a town called Paignton–imagine your town’s police blotter on steroids. Leins’s main character throughout “Meat Bubbles” is Joy Rey, a barely functioning alcoholic and private investigator who prowls the city’s darkest streets. Rey will do any dirty work from finding lost criminals to delivering messages that won’t be forgotten. He does most of his work for money, but Rey, who is more comfortable at a dirty bar than a coffee shop, would probably do it for free.

This latest collection of short stories by Leins also includes a short novella that Leins self-published earlier this year, “Snuff Racket”. I said of that novella, “If you don’t mind violence like Sonny Corleone’s beating of Carlo Rizzi then Tom Leins’s ‘Snuff Racket’ is for you.” I reviewed his first novella “Skull Meat” saying that “Leins has created a world where Tarantino’s characters would not live past their first five minutes in town …”

With “Meat Bubbles”, Leins continues to beat on our anesthetized sensibilities creating crime fiction for the remorseless and bloodthirsty.

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The Hard Cold Shoulder by L.A. Sykes

the-hard-cold-shoulder-by-l-a-sykesL.A. Sykes’ The Hard Cold Shoulder (Near to the Knuckle) opens with Ben Pitkin, an ex-cop and private investigator, sitting at a train station watching trains come and go. Pitkin gets a call from an old snitch and criminal Tommy Rellis and Pitkin can “smell the pleading despair on his breath through the wire”, a man who messed up and it might lead to the death of his daughter. Pitkin agrees to take the case telling Rellis, “If I bring her back safe, I’m taking every penny you’ve got.”

A good and predictable start for a private eye book, but L.A. Sykes’ The Hard Cold Shoulder brings in one more trope that I didn’t want to mention straight up, Pitkin is a broken man. But hold on here and don’t snap to judgment; Sykes does this better than most – a lot better – in writing about Pitkin’s issues; Sykes handles it with clarity. When Pitkin got the call from Rellis, he was sitting on a train station platform something Pitkin does with regularity. The night ticket master thinks Pitkin waits for a woman, but he doesn’t correct him. It’s something else. Pitkin seems unsure at this point.

I knew Tommy Rellis was owed no pity, but I felt the torture of the man’s bad decision-making creeping into my fibres; echoes of my own mistakes illuminated in the bare, one bedroom flat with Closed In for unwanted constant company. The consequences of the man’s disgusting, selfish stupidity spiked into the forefront of my mind, ripping up ruminations of both mine and Tommy’s self-induced annihilation: The girl, Tabitha.

Her name flickered round and round and visions of streams of tears swam through my head and I forced myself to lie on my bed and clamp shut my eyes. Beads of sweat cascaded from my temples and I concentrated on breathing steadily, willing desperately needed sleep to carry me away.

Pitkin heads into the investigation with relish. When he doesn’t get a straight answer Pitkin doesn’t mind resorting to threats or violence to get the truth. L.A. Sykes’ The Hard Cold Shoulder is a strong and savage book, not about a man trying to salvage himself from despair, it about is a man jumping into a pain he can never escape from.

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The Black-Hearted Beat: Book One by Jason Michel

One can get into a debate on what defines a novel, novella, novelette(?) or short story, but only pedantic little pricks really care about that. You might even know the author as the force behind Pulp Metal Magazine but the writer’s pedigree is equally just as unimportant. There is talk that this was once a podcast and that doesn’t matter. What matters is that  Jason Michael’s The Black-Hearted Beat: Book One (Near to the Knuckle) is a fucking great ride.

The book begins with our narrator playing a game of Russian Roulette in an underground club in London. With a pistol to his temple, the narrator tells the story of how as a child, a stray bullet almost killed him but only grazing his ear.

There I was, a child, walking nonchalantly across main roads. I had the momentary ironclad belief that I was invincible. A belief that lasted just long enough for the police to finally pick me up and take me back to the bosom of my very pissed off family. Just because I was blessed with good luck, did not mean I had the hide of a rhino.

I learnt a valuable lesson with every stroke of my father’s belt.

No matter how charmed your life is, pain is fated for all of us. With every shining light, a darkness follows.

Paul D. Brazill has a short introduction to this book calling it “pulp and poetry, gritty and lyrical, claustrophobic and cinematic, lurid and literary.” Michel’s book is all of this and more. The Black-Hearted Beat is a shot glass filled with anger and death spilling over its rim — you drink it, casually lick your wet fingers, and ask for another.

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A Case of Noir by Paul D. Brazill

Paul D. Brazill’s novella, A Case of Noir (Near to the Knuckle), is broken up into five short stories that mask as chapters, each focusing on Luke Case, a British freelance journalist drinking and fucking his way through Europe. Case doesn’t like to work or make good decision all of which makes for a great read.

In the first chapter, “Red Esperanto”, we meet Case in a prostitute’s apartment in Warsaw. Things get heated when on of Tatiana’s clients arrives and pounds at the door demanding to be let in. As Tatiana puts it, “Oh, he’s just a customer who has problems separating business from pleasure.” Case only knows pleasure.

Reading Brazill gave me the same sort of enjoyment I get when reading Jim Thompson, characters filling their desperation with alcohol, fornication, and crime. As with Thompson, Brazill knows that the human condition weak and is punctuated with violence and/or death.

I jolted awake, coated in cold, dank sweat. Daylight sliced through the gaps between the broken blinds. A tight band gripped my forehead and my pounding heartbeat seemed to echo through the sparse, familiar looking room.

A beat.

I adjusted to the wan light. I was on my bed. Naked. Back in the flat that I shared with Nathan. I tried to piece together what had happened.

At some point during the night I’d woken up, confused, with no recollection of getting there. Irena, naked, was smoking and gazing out of the bedroom window. The tip of her cigarette glowed bright red and then faded to black.

Lena, also naked, walked up to her, whispered something in her ear and then I dissolved back into sleep.

I stumbled out of the bed and into the bathroom. My wiry arms gripped the washbasin for support. I sighed deeply as I splashed cold water on my face.

When I walked back into the living room, Irena was standing naked in the doorway to Nathan’s bedroom. Bowie’s Station To Station played at a low volume.

She lazily nodded into the bedroom and said, “He’s dead.”

With A Case of Noir, Brazill has written book that is steeped in the cigarette smoke, dirty whiskey glasses, and cheap sex of dive bars. If you like your books with melancholy masked in the false joy of booze, sex, and beatings then Brazill’s A Case of Noir is exactly what you are looking for.

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Too Many Crooks by Paul D. Brazill

It took me a few pages of Paul D. Brazill’s Too Many Crooks (Near to the Knuckle) to settle into Brazill’s style — a Tarantino humor with Leonard’s directness. And, who names one of the main characters McGuffin? Either you’ll laugh at this joke or not. I laughed and I think you will too.

This McGuffin thing is a literary easter egg, if you will, and  Brazill sprinkles many others throughout Too Many Crooks. There is a family of characters name Rhatigan — I presume named after Chris Rhatigan, a crime fiction writer and editor. The novel’s title even comes from a British movie comedy of the same name “about a bunch of inept crooks who kidnap the wrong woman.” Hell, even some of the chapter titles are jokes that I got. What other jokes and references will you find?

Too Many Crooks moves quickly between London and Warsaw and back again as well as criminal to criminal. Like all good crime books, it begins with a murder.

Ted Singh had really had enough of Bobby Jake’s incessant whining and he was more than somewhat relieved when Ziggy eventually shot the annoying fucker in the back of the head, spraying blood and gunk down the front of Jake’s previously pristine white Fred Perry t– shirt.

Ted’s guts churned. Although he certainly had no qualms about the moral aspects of murdering Bobby Jake, he didn’t really have the stomach for the gory stuff. He never had, truth be told.

“Hold onto this for me,” said Ziggy, handing the Glock to Ted whose hands shook as he took the gun.

The novel might actually have too many crooks, but don’t worry, that’s why the criminals carry firearms. The felonious herd is thinned out repeatedly and with great effect. But nasty killings are not the only things you will find in Too Many Crooks, Brazill’s writing is fast-paced and humorous which makes this one-sitting novel a lively read.

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