Monday, 9 February 2015

The Dark Art

This is a very good book, though far too short. Inexplicably short.

Edward Follis was a DEA agent, fighting the war on drugs around the world. And I mean literally around the world. You name it and he’s been there: Thailand, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Mexico. Anywhere drugs originate from, or are smuggled in from, the chances are that the intrepid Edward Follis has been there.

And this guy is no desk jockey. He really was out there undercover. The pages are packed with tales and anecdotes of his life running undercover operations against the Burmese Shan United Army, the Juarez Mexican drugs cartel, various Israeli gangsters and Nigerian crime lords, and that’s before we even touch upon al Qaeda and the Afghan heroin trade.

Which brings me to my disappointment. I loved this book, read it in two days, but was left wanting more. The book details organisations that have rarely been touched upon – how many book have discussed the war against the Shan United Army? And yet here the whole story is dealt with in just 27 pages. That’s despite the fact that the author claims the operations that he was a part of finished off the group. I was left wanting more which left me a little disappointed. Perhaps the author is saving stuff for a sequel?

Apart from the brevity, I only have one criticism of the content itself and that is how unaware the author appears to be of the pointlessness of the war on drugs, despite the fact that his narrative makes that abundantly clear.

For example, despite bringing down three of the biggest Afghan heroin barons, he writes in the epilogue that in recent years there has been a 67% increase in heroin seizures and a 59% increase in heroin charges in New York alone. So what was the point? Surely we should rethink the war on drugs? Surely, what his story is testament to, is the effectiveness of policing against individual drug lords but it’s ineffectiveness against the trade as a whole.

Similarly, in the chapter on the Israeli Abergil crime family, he writes: ‘Don’t be fooled by the reputation of MDMA as a harmless “party” drug: the global Ecstasy market is monstrous’. He then details various murders that have come about through organised crime groups fighting over the trade. But the same could be said about alcohol under prohibition. People like Capone fought over the booze trade until it was legalised. The fact that people like the Abergils fight over the ecstasy trade says nothing about the drug itself, it just speaks to the pointlessness of prohibition.

The nearest the author gets to such insights is when discussing the Juarez cartel and the downfall of it’s then leader, Amado Carillo Fuentes, who died undergoing plastic surgery. The author discusses how after his passing the cartel was very quickly taken over by others, in effect admitting that business carried on as usual. But rather than leading to wider questioning of the drug war, the author stubbornly sticks to his view that success can come from targeting those at the top, even repeating it in the epilogue.

I understand that having spent a lifetime in the war on drugs it must be hard to admit that it has all been a waste of time; that your life’s work has been pointless. In effect he spells this out in the epilogue, when he details how drugs are still sweeping the nation. This is a very good book but it would have been a brilliant one if he had had the guts to do so.

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

A Killing Winter

This is a great book. Well written, pacy plot, good use of location and a protagonist who kept me interested.

Inspector Akyl Borubaev of the Bishbek Murder Squad (Bishbek being the capital of Kyrgyzstan) is called to the scene of a brutal murder, only to find that the dead woman is the daughter of one of the most powerful people in the country. He further discovers that the woman has been gutted and a foetus placed inside her.

As well as kicking off the plot, this sets the tone for the rest of the book. This is no cosy whodunit, but pure gritty noir territory. If you like your crime fiction brutal and unforgiving then this might be the novel for you. The story contains political conspiracy; quite shocking violence in parts and the author doesn’t spare us any of the bloody details.

The author clearly knows the region well and successfully brings Kyrgyzstan to life. The protagonist is a part of that world and a product of it, so is not above a bit of police brutality. This isn’t a world of due process. But Inspector Borubaev is more than a mere thug and has an ethical code, a line he won’t cross.

All of the main characters are well rounded; none are cardboard cut-outs, with the possible exception of the femme fatale. An Uzbek intelligence officer, she is the one character whom I felt was a little bit clich├ęd. Why is it in spy thrillers there is always a stunningly beautiful KGB agent? OK, this isn’t strictly a spy thriller and she is Uzbek intelligence rather than Russian, but the super-sexy deadly spy just didn’t work for me.

Having said that, this is a minor quibble in an otherwise flawless debut.  Many novels, even those written by experienced writers, sag in the middle. A Killing Winter didn’t and I found myself gripped throughout. The author, Tom Callaghan, has a sequel on the way and I will definitely be reading it.

I would give this book 5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Skin in the Game

Firstly, let me lay my cards on the table so to speak. As a rule I am deeply suspicious of self-publishing. I think that traditional publishers are there for a reason: to ensure that the books that reach the reading public are the best that they can be. Unfortunately, with the rise of digital platforms like Kindle, a lot of people are circumnavigating this process and sub-standard works are appearing. If I had known that Skin in the Game was self-published I would never have downloaded it. My mistake, I should have read the description more closely.

Having said all that, upon opening the book I was initially surprised. To the author's credit he has ensured the minimal of spelling/grammatical mistakes. The typo is the bane of the self-published work and the author has done an admirable job correcting any errors in his manuscript prior to publication.

That said the rest of the book is a mess. I have to confess that I got to the sixty per cent mark and simply gave up. I understand that this is a conspiracy thriller but events are so opaque as to be unreadable. Things aren't helped by some serious issues I have with the text.

The first is the layout when dialogue occurs. I simply can't tell who is supposed to be saying what during a conversation. The author writes a line of dialogue, then on the next line there is description, then the next line a line of dialogue. There simply aren't enough pointers as to who is saying what. I understand that he doesn't want to use the word "said" too often but it exists in novels for a reason, to let the reader know who is saying what in conversational to and fro.

The second issue I have with the dialogue is that the author is clearly not familiar with the adage Show, Don’t Tell. Simply put, the plot of the novel, the emotions and actions of the character should be shown, not spelt out to the reader through stilted dialogue. In Skin in the Game, the plot is most definitely spelt out to us time an again in dialogue. There are pages and pages of stilted discussion, where characters discuss the conspiracies they are involved in, their belief and motivations in mind-numbing detail. Quite apart from the fact that people involved in illegal activity won’t sit around discuss their illegal activities for long, surely co-conspirators already know each other’s motivations?

Then there are the weird movements/body language/expressions he has his characters do. Characters will be talking and then the author will write something like: ‘he tilted his head back, curled his lip and jerked away’. Or ‘She placed her palms on her eyes, slowly down her nose and lips, to her mouth.’ Quite simply half the time I have no idea what is meant by all this, or what this is meant to say about the characters. It seems strangely robotic. And characters ‘leer’ at each other. My dictionary says that leer means; ‘To look with a sideways or oblique glance, especially suggestive of lascivious interest or sly and malicious intention.’  There is one occasion when the use of the word makes sense, but when a hitman is talk to his employer in MI6? Why would he leer at him?

This brings me onto a further criticism. Part of the plot involves an MI6 torture facility, where techniques similar to those recently exposed being used by the CIA in black sites are used, complete with dodgy psychiatrists, sensory deprivation, hallucinogenic drugs etc. I know this is fiction, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that the UK’s intelligence services are whiter than white, but if you are going to write a novel based in the current political climate at least try and get some things right. There is no evidence that the British intelligence services ever did anything even close to this. They sat in on interrogations abroad, fine, but a torture facility in deepest Surrey? It stretches credulity.

Lastly, I have to take issue with the author’s choice of names for characters. There are just too many outlandish names. Cadan Blake, Bertram Mercier, Lincoln Covington, Cameron Krug. I understand that this is a novel that spans the globe, but its like the author has reached for the most outlandish names he can find. Even “ordinary” names like Sophie have the more rare spelling: Sofi. There is a Sam and a Joe, and I exempt the Arabic names from this criticism, but I found myself grating at his choice of names.

All in all this is a rough, messy novel. Much editing is needed and the author, while showing some talent, needs to work on his craft.