Hope Road sits at the feet of the optimistic, vertical city, close to the glamour but somehow cut off from it, left on the outside. This part of Leeds clings to its low-slung industrial past like an old drunk, scared to change his ways and knowing that, in any case, he’s not welcome anywhere. Victorian workshops and squat 1920s factory blocks are either bricked up or hide unnamed businesses behind steel-panelled gates topped off with coils of rusting barbed wire. Occasional splashes of colour announce exhaust refits and commercial printing services.
I’m going to admit that the idea of a new series of no less than 9 crime novels is a daunting prospect–even for a die-hard crime reader like me, but the good news is that this is an opportunity for those interested to get in at the ground floor level for a mere 2.99. The books I’m talking about are the LS9 series written by John Barlow. John, a self-described mid-list author went straight to kindle with his book Hope Road, and you can find his (well-worth reading) explanations for that here. Last year, thanks to Tom at A Common Reader, I discovered Conan Kennedy and his kindle e-book The Colour of Her Eyes. The kindle (and yes I own one) opens up worlds of possibilities for authors and readers, and I think it’s rather exciting.
So back to Hope Road which I bought after checking out a sample chapter (another great feature of the kindle). First of all, I can see the mini-series now, so Mr. Barlow, I hope you’re working on the second book. For those who watch television crime mini-series, think Finney or even The Take (based on the book by Martina Cole), and you’ll have an idea of where Hope Road slots into the crime genre. Yes this book is the first entry in what promises to be a sprawling saga of a notorious crime family from Leeds.
The novel’s main character is John Ray, the only surviving son of Tony Ray, a much-respected Leeds crime boss. In Tony Ray’s heyday, he had his finger in many pies, and his used car business served as a front for his less-legit concerns. But those days appear to be over. Wheel-chair bound, geriatric Tony Ray is spending his sunset years drooling at Oakwell Nursing Home, and John Ray’s brother, Joe “a hardened, joyless version of their father,” who took the family crime business to the next level, had his brains blown out two years before. The crime remains unsolved. This leaves the youngest son, John Ray, the ‘white sheep’ of the family, and when the book begins, John Ray who denounced the criminal life years earlier and worked as an accountant, is back in Leeds running the old family business Tony Ray’s Motors, and he appears to be making a success of it.
John Ray runs the shop with the help of two employees: a distant relative with murky connections, the libidinous Connie, and the young reformed crook, Freddie. It looks as though John Ray may be winning the respect of the local business community when he’s awarded the Autotrader Used Car Dealer of the Year Award. On top of that, John Ray is also dating copper Denise Danson, and that relationship has people on both sides of the fence upset.
John’s world begins to crumble when the body of a prostitute named Donna is found in the boot of one of his cars, and before long, Freddie, sweating it out in Millgarth police station, is the odds-on favourite for the crime. The police however, also found 50,000 pounds of forged pound notes in the car, and since the Ray family dabbled in counterfeit notes, suspicion also falls on John, but the police can’t make the crime stick to John no matter how hard they try.
Hope Road follows John’s investigation of the death of Donna as he tries to prove that Freddie is innocent of the murder, but with every step he takes, he digs deeper into the Leeds underworld and finds that the local crims and coppers alike both mistrust him. All roads of the investigation seem to take John back to the seedy rundown motel called the Eurolodge. Here’s one of my favourite scenes between former barmaid Sandy, who now works at the motel, and John Ray as they discuss the Eurolodge:
“Adrian Fuller, owner-manager…”
She sniffs. “He’s all right, Fuller. He inherited the building a couple of years ago, had an idea for business hotels, budget ones. Eurolodges all over the country. Told me one night when he was pissed.”
“So what happened?”
“Place didn’t take off. Then he started getting funny guests. Blokes, groups of ‘em all in one room, asking for big discounts. They’d book by the week, or longer, and they’d be coming and going at all hours….”
“Let me guess. The kind of people my dad used to employ?”
“Something like that. Before he knew it, his normal customers had disappeared.”
He watches as she puts out her cigarette and immediately lights another.
“Ahh, that hits the spot,” she moans, almost curling up in pleasure.
“Jesus, I spend years trying to get it down to two-a-day, then one-a-day. Suddenly I’m surrounded by women who just adore tobacco.”
“It’s about the only pleasure I can afford, love,” she says, and takes another draw.
Hope Road asks some relevant questions: can a person whose past is immersed in crime ever make a complete break, and even if he does will anyone believe that he’s not chosen the same path as the rest of his family? This is an intriguing beginning for author John Barlow. The first is the series is often the weakest, but this is a strong start which establishes core behaviours and core characters and sets the foundations for a sprawling crime family saga amidst the seedy hotels, drab flats and various low-lifes of Leeds. I particularly enjoyed how John Ray runs into Sandy, once the object of his adolescent fantasies, and while the meeting is a reality check, John Ray isn’t exactly a Hollywood type either:
Shirley Kirk studies John Ray’s features, strong nose, high forehead, thick black hair. A heavy-set man with faded good looks. Attractive? Up to a point, but there’s something else. A frisson of excitement with him, the fact he comes from serious criminal stock, old school crims, love their mothers, all that shit. It’s not his fault, but it’s not as if he does anything to hide it. We’re all playing somebody, she tells herself, and this is how Mr. Ray has chosen to play it.