Tag Archives: hard-boiled crime

The Master of Knots by Massimo Carlotto

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a fan of Italian author Massimo Carlotto. If you want to read some of the finest Italian crime fiction written, then seek out Death’s Dark Abyss or The Goodbye Kissboth books offer views of Carlotto’s dark worlds of crime, worlds in which morality is an idea for textbooks and has very little to do with the choices life puts in front of us.

But first a word about Massimo Carlotto. His non-fiction book, The Fugitive, recounts how, as a member of Lotta Continua, he was charged with a crime he did not commit.  After three trials he was acquitted, but when the acquittal was overturned, he faced a sentence of 18 years in prison. Carlotto went on the run and eventually ended up in a Mexican jail.

Carlotto knows first hand about ‘justice,’ imprisonment, and institutional violence, and no doubt all this experience is what makes his novels seem so authentic. While he’s written stand-alone novels, there’s also a PI series which features Marco Burrati–otherwise known as the Alligator. The Master of Knots is number 5 in the Alligator series, and while there are some references to the past, I don’t think it’s essential to read the prior 4. I haven’t. 

master of knotsThe Master of Knots finds Marco in his club, La Cuccia which also serves as his unofficial PI office. Marco’s past includes 7 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, so he is forced to register the club in someone else’s name. Business is good, and there’s no financial need to take PI cases, but Marco feels driven by a need to seek justice for those who either have no recourse to the law, or those, who, for a variety of reasons, find the legal system ineffectual or out-of-bounds. Marco’s long-time girlfriend Virna (Bandit Love) who’s unaware of Marco’s past does not understand Marco’s desire to take investigative cases, and this has led to a severance of their relationship. To Marco, his PI work “gave some meaning” to his life, and he can’t let it go.

Marco’s help is sought by a rather weasely man named Giraldi, who claims that his wife Helena, an S & M model with a perfect body, has been kidnapped after keeping a rendezvous with a stranger she met on the internet. Marco dislikes Giraldi immediately, and after a cursory overview of the facts, Marco knows that the husband’s story stinks, but he agrees to take the case.

This missing person’s case takes Marco and his associates, aging old-world gangster Rossini (who sports a gold bracelet, a “scalp,” for every man he’s killed), and anti-globalist activist Max deep into the secret world of S & M. Max, who considers that Helena is in the hands of a “maniac” feels a moral imperative to become involved while Rossini considers the case as something outside of a gangster’s interest. The three men soon penetrate the secret world of S & M, learn the rules for encounters, and conclude that according to Giraldi’s story, his wife Helena, an experienced “slave,” broke every rule in the book. This leads Marco to conclude that either Helena was careless or that Giraldi is lying through his teeth, and if he’s lying, what does he hope to gain? Marco initially doesn’t understand the attraction of S & M at all, but gradually he comes to accept that for some people it fills a deep-seated need.

Playing a role was not a performance they put on just to have some enjoyable sex. There was something deeper that drove people to construct perfectly organized double lives. It was vital that nobody outside the S and M scene should know a thing, not even their nearest and dearest. Discovery would destroy their lives totally.

Cracking open the S & M circuit is no easy matter–especially when those involved are suspicious of outsiders and cautious when it comes to interactions. The lives of S & M players are by their very nature secret, and everyone Marco meets leads double lives. With the help of a couple of Sardinian computer hackers, Marco accesses forums and e-mails of the sites Helena cruised. As Marco goes deeper and deeper into the S & M world, ugly memories from his prison years float to the surface. These are things he’d much rather forget, but seeing sex and violence entwined disturbs Marco and his two associates deeply.

The Master of Knots is the story of a missing S & M model, but it’s much more than that. The impact of violence is central to this story, and S & M–with its variety of sexual encounters performed with mutual consent, rules and various safety boundaries has spun out of control into something much more dangerous. The entire concept of S & M is outside of Marco, Rossini, and Max’s experience, and they don’t understand it, but when they uncover blackmail and underground films that fetch a high price, they are motivated to solve the case.  Marco learns that some S & M “masters” have their very own, well-equipped secret dungeons. For a man who’s endured false imprisonment, torture, and beatings, the idea that some people elect to engage in S & M, even with its rules and boundaries, is simply inconceivable.

Violence–its use and misuse appears frequently in the novel. Violence towards women, violence within the prison system between inmates and between inmates and guards, and then there’s violence of the state towards those who disagree with government policies. We see the latter through Max’s new-found activism, and his refusal to listen to Marco’s warnings concerning the very real possibility of violence at the G-8 protest. Marco has moved on from activism–hence the PI work, as it’s an arena he can control. Max, however, is eager to attend the protests–even though it’s guaranteed to turn violent, and Max, middle-aged and overweight, will make an easy target. Here’s Marco warning Max about the realities of prison and finding yourself in the hands of the State:

“Back in the days when grassing up your comrades was just getting to be the height of fashion, those involved in armed struggle began to lose any trust they had ever had in one another. So every time one of them went to see the doctor, the prison governor, or the prison admin office, he had to be accompanied by a fellow comrade just to make sure he didn’t cut a deal with the cops. But in the end they always found a way.”

“So?”

“Torture had fuck-all to do with it. The only thing they were afraid of was doing time and growing old behind bars. They got off lightly, every last one of them.”

“I can’t see what you’re driving at.”

“You can understand and forgive someone who talks because his nuts are in a vice. Anybody can have a moment’s weakness, but ratting is something else. So before you get yourself in trouble it’s best to work out whether or not you have the balls to do prison.”

Carlotto’s novels are lean, hard-boiled and devoid of sentimentality. Marco, Rossini, and Max are the good guys here, but their methods are unorthodox, illegal, and very violent. There are no rules for these men; they do what is necessary to solve the case, and in this instance, the mystery surrounding the missing S & M model, turns even their stomachs. There’s no sense of do-gooding here–it’s more a matter of clearing out cockroaches. Since Marco operates in his own criminal world with underworld contacts, the police are always in the periphery of Marco’s shady world. While Marco is the brains of the outfit, Rossini is the enforcer who clearly enjoys his work. Marco admits:

The rule is that when you need information, first you ask nicely and then you break bones. Face it, it’s a method we use, too. Intimidation, violence, and blackmail are the only techniques for making people talk.

At just 179 page, The Master of Knots, part of Europa Edition’s World Noir series, is a slim, quick, and enjoyable read. There were a couple of gruesome moments but the details were not slobbered over. Finally,  I loved the character of Donatella Morganti. Marco finds her extremely attractive–until she opens her mouth, so just a touch of humour slips into the story. Anyway, another engaging entry in a good series.

Translated by Christopher Woodall.

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The Tower by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman

Tower, a hard-boiled, stand-alone crime novel is the collaborative work of Irish author Ken Bruen and American writer Reed Farrel Coleman. Framed with a short prologue and a very brief afterword, the story is divided into two parts: one told by gangster, Nick and the other told by his best friend Todd. Nick is a low-grade criminal, the son of a former policeman, when he is introduced by Todd to “small-time racketeer” Boyle,  and the two friends become part of Boyle’s crew. Boyle is into “cards, hot goods, intimidation, muscle,” and although Boyle is violent and unpredictable, he appears to take a “shine” to Nick, offering him more work and better perks. At the same time, Todd seems to separate himself from Boyle, but perhaps there’s an ethnic basis to these loyalties. Todd is Jewish while Nick and Boyle are both Irish extraction. Boyle is third generation Irish, “stage Irish” according to Nick, who because he’s visited there a few times, sports a false brogue and thinks he’s the ‘real’ thing.  On the other hand, Boyle’s main thug, Griffin, from Belfast, is the real deal, and it’s rumoured he was a Provo. Boyle, who seems to think it’s all about presentation, is “an ambitious prick who had worked his way up the sewer pipe to the toilet and from the toilet to the gutter.” Boyle is prone to moments of unpredictable violence but sports a false gregarious, even generous veneer which is somewhat theatrically accompanied by bible quotes. Griffin, on the other hand, is impenetrable, shifty and psycho. They make a good pair. Biblical Boyle (as he’s called behind his back) would be easy to underestimate:

My life was crammed with Micks, my family and most of the guys I knew. Boyle was one of the most irritating. Third generation, he’d been to Ireland a few times and had more than once told me to get my arse over there, touch my roots. I assured him it was one of my goals but the only place I wanted to go was Miami. The warehouse had posters of Dublin and Galway, Galway with that Bay, and Boyle wasn’t above singing a few bars of that song, “If I ever go across the sea to Ireland” and he sang like a strangled crow. In his late fifties, he had that barroom tan, the bloated face from too much Jameson, the busted veins along his cheeks. Small eyes that darted like eels and it would be a big mistake to think the booze affected his attention. If anything, the drink seemed to work on him like speed for anyone else, got him cranked.

In spite of their ethnic differences, in many ways Todd and Nick have always been on the same path,  and problems begin when they split up. Todd goes off to do some work for Boyle in Boston, and while he’s gone, Nick, initially the more violent of the two friends, gains more and more favour with Boyle. He’s rewarded with a gold rolex, and then an apartment in Tribeca after persuading Boyle’s faithless girlfriend that it’s in the best interests of her health that she move out. Now.

towerThen Todd returns but he’s not the same; his new-found taste for violence stuns even Nick. Events spiral out of control with Todd seeking vengeance and Nick, snorting Cocaine every chance he gets, caught in a cobweb of conflicting desires and loyalties.

Boyle’s time was at hand. Nick and Todd’s as well. From the second they chose the life, they chose their deaths. I used to talk to men I guarded about this stuff. A lot of them were not so different than Todd and Nick, guys who, for whatever reason got swept up in the world of violence and easy money. Some were stone killers, Griffin prototypes. They were easier to understand. The guys like Todd and Nick, they never had much to say. It was as if they were at some destination, but vague on how they got there or why they had gone in the first place.

Tower, a tale of alliances, loyalties and revenge unfolds quite cleverly through its two narrators, and while we get a solid sense of just who Nick and Todd are, this is primarily a plot-driven tale. My copy has 172 pages and looking back over the plot, it’s easy to see that there’s very little fat here. Some of the events that occur are seen in overlap through the two different perspectives, and so some unanswered questions are explained by Todd’s version of events in part II. As a hard-boiled crime novel, this is a very dark, sharp, tight tale–bleak and doom-laden with scenes of horrendous violence, so the squeamish need not apply.

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A White Arrest by Ken Bruen

“See, you gotta let ‘em see you’re the most brutal fuckin’ thing they’ve ever seen.”

I read and thoroughly enjoyed London Boulevard some time ago, so when I was offered a copy of A White Arrest, I grabbed it. After finishing London Boulevard, I picked over this author’s back list and discovered that A White Arrest,  the first part of a trilogy followed by Taming the Alien and The McDead, was OOP and pricey if you could find it. Now back in a $9.99 kindle version is the entire The White Arrest trilogy. People can bitch as much as they want about the evils of the kindle, but for many crime fans, electronic readers have brought back some fantastic titles. Case in point.

the white trilogyFirst things first: A White Arrest, and a term I’ll admit I’d never heard before, is  an arrest that is “the pinnacle of a policeman’s career,” and now that I’ve given that description, I’ll say that it seems extremely unlikely that Irish Detective Sgt. Brant, the antihero of this story is ever going to get white anything. That’s because Brant isn’t exactly a by-the-book copper. He’s crude, coarse, a sexist who leaves a trail of complaints in his wake. Brant’s boss is Chief Inspector Roberts, and they are known in the department as R and B:

The relationship twixt R and B always seemed a beat away from beating. You felt like they’d like nothing better than to get down and kick the living shit out of each other. Which had happened. The tension between them was the chemistry that glued. Co-dependency was another word for it.

Both men have hellish personal lives. Roberts has a fancy house and an even fancier wife, and together they have a teenage daughter who just got kicked out of private school. While Fiona Roberts pulls the disapproving Ice Queen routine on her hubbie on a nightly basis, her afternoons are spent on the sly buying sex from studley, oiled young men. Whereas Roberts’ expensive and complicated home life is poison, Brant is now single and his flat is a “one room basic unit. He kept it tidy in case he scored.”

To complicate matters, Brant fancies Fiona Roberts, and there is some debate whether this misplaced lust is genuine or whether it springs from a desire to cuckold Roberts. Every interaction between Brant and Roberts is fraught with tension–Brant, for example, insists on calling Roberts Guv–even though he’s told repeatedly to knock it off. On another level (and one I’ll admit I delighted in) there’s an ongoing literary duel between the two coppers about the best crime writer. Brant is a fan of Ed McBain, and he owns a prize collection of his favorite author’s books in his grotty council flat in Kennington with “one whole wall devoted entirely to books.” He owns the entire Ed McBain series, “two shelves were given to the Matthew Hope series” and the bottom shelf is the home of the Evan Hunter books–or as Brant likes to think “the three faces of the author.” When Brant isn’t quoting McBain, he’s trying to get Roberts to read him, and the fact that Roberts rejects McBain only underscores Brant’s view of his boss’s serious character flaws. Here’s Brant trying, unsuccessfully once again, to get his boss to read McBain.

I’ve another McBain for you.

He tossed a dog-eared book on to the desk. It looked like it had been chewed, laundered and beaten. Roberts didn’t touch it, said: “You found this in the toilet, that’s it?”

“It’s his best yet. No one does the Police Procedural like Ed.”

Roberts leaned over to see the title. A food stain had obliterated that. At least he hoped it was food. he said: “You should support the home side, read Bill James, get the humorous side of policing.”

“For humour sir, I have you–my humour cup overflowed!”

In spite of the fact that tension flows between Brant and Roberts, they work well together, and oddly enough Roberts protects Brant at crucial moments. When the novel begins Brant is in no small amount of trouble.

All his little perks, minor scams, interrogation techniques, his attitude, guaranteed he’d be shafted before the year was out. A grand sweep of the Met was coming and they were top of the list. Unless … Unless they pulled off the big one, the legendary White Arrest that every copper dreamed about. The veritable Oscar, the Nobel prize of criminology. Like nailing the Yorkshire Ripper or finding the shit-head Lucan. It would clear the books, put you on page one, get you on them chat shows. Have Littlejohn kiss yer arse, ah!

So those are our coppers, well a couple of them. There’s also WPC Falls “the wet dream of the nick. Leastways she hoped she was. A little over 5′ 6″ she was the loaded side of plump, but it suited her.” And there’s young, weak Brant wannabe PC Tone who imitates his idol and feels “dizzy with the macho-ness” of unaccustomed phrases and actions.

Now to the crimes: there are no less than two serial murders taking place. A gang of young racist thugs begin by murdering drug dealers and then move on to other targets, and then there’s a total psycho who’s bumping off members of the England cricket team in spectacularly exotic fashion. R & B are on the trail of the killers with Brant determined to get his White Arrest and wipe his dirty slate clean.

In spite of Brant’s abrasive, coarse personality, there’s the core of twisted idealism alive and well festering in his perverse heart. In between ripping off pizza delivery boys, and harassing Indian newspaper vendors, Brant, a crime film and fiction aficionado freely quotes from some of his favourites and would like to style himself on the Ed McBain novels:

For some perverse reason he finds that Ed McBain in the police procedural comes closest to the way it should have been. Long after he’d dismissed Dixon as a wanker. his heart still bore the imprint of Dock Green. In Brant’s words, television had gone the way of Peckham. Right down the shitter.

It’s through Brant that one of the novel’s sub themes is most evident, and that’s the way we tend to need heroes in our lives; there’s PC Tone whose desire to emulate Detective Sgt. Brant leads him on a deadly path, there’s Brant who really wants to be a cop in Ed McBain’s 87th precinct, there’s Roberts who relates to the heroes of film noir, and vicious thug Kevin’s emulation of Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. On that note, here’s a free tip: want to know what someone really thinks?… ask ‘em who their heroes are before you take them home to meet mother.

 I read a lot of crime, and sometimes when you read a lot of one particular genre, books blend into each other and the characters and story threads blur: missing teenage girls who walked away from a party and never came back, alcoholic policemen who turn up disheveled and red-eyed for roll-call, the detective who must beat the clock before a sicko-serial killer offs his next squirming teenage captive…. well you get my drift. A White Arrest crackles with originality and delivers sordid details of those on both sides of the fence–Brant is a flawed morally reprehensible human being whose, let’s say, unconventional approaches to crime solution leave a lot to be desired, but he is also at the same time a very unique and very real creation. Brant does awful things to people he deems weaker than himself, but even so there is some sort of moral line he won’t cross. To those who work with Brant, that moral line may seem non-existent, but it’s there nonetheless. Brant with his gleefully nasty larger-than-life-in-your-face-and fuck-you-if-you-don’t-like-it personality is someone I want to read about. Ken Bruen added just enough tiny details to Brant’s character to salvage him from a total wipe-out to someone who has a few deeply hidden human traits that are rarely shown to those within the department. Highly recommended for those who like their crime dirty, dark  and hard-boiled with just the right touch of black humour.

For those interested, to date there are seven novels in the Brant series.

Review copy

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Matador Serial by Ray Banks: A Novel Idea

Partly because I’m a fan of Ray Banks, and partly because I want to see how this plays out, I signed up for MATADOR: a 7-part serial available on the kindle. Total cost: $1.99. Beginning on November 20th 2012, one episode out of seven will be published, and the subsequent six episodes will be sent in two-week intervals. Subscribers receive e-mail notification when each new episode is available.

According to Amazon, episode one is 55 pages and the blurb says this:

A man wakes in a shallow grave next to a corpse to find himself shot, amnesiac and in deep trouble. Meanwhile, an expat drug runner finds out that he’s not the killer he thought he was.

In some ways this has been done before. I’m thinking of the Cornhill Magazine which in 1860 (according to some sources) began featuring the works of many notable writers in serial form, but the reading of novels in carefully parcelled out sections has been passé for years. The world of the ‘printed word’ is changing, and here’s someone grabbing an opportunity in the new still-shifting paradigm. Perhaps I’m easy to please, but I can’t help but be excited about this new serial. Since e-readers open up worlds of possibilities for readers and writers, will we see more of these in the future?

Watch this space…

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