Sunday, 11 September 2016

Ash and Bones by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas, a former Cardiff police officer turned author, first came to my attention with his novel A Pocket Notebook, a dark, funny tale of a firearms officer going off the rails. Next up was his hugely enjoyable Ugly Bus, literally one of the best books I have read, and one of the few to feature as its protagonists’ members of the TSG. The Territorial Support Group is the nearest UK police forces come to having a riot squad, and as such when it does appear in fiction it’s usually as knuckle dragging simpletons. Both of these books are well worth a read, Ugly Bus in particular deserving a recommendation. It is with more than a little excitement that I heard recently that Ugly Bus has been picked up by the BBC for dramatisation and I for one will be glued to my TV when it airs.

But what do after penning two original tales? How often can one come up with something unique? For his third book, Mike Thomas has chosen to tread the safer ground of the police procedural. This choice is understandable as it allows him to develop a small group of characters, the protagonist and a support cast if you will, and flesh them out over a series of novels. It also allows him to tell a more traditional crime story than he has so far. Of course this is not without risk. Until now Thomas’s has been an original voice, one that stood out from the mass of other crime writers with their serried ranks of police detectives and serial killers. Might he sink into cliché and pastiche?

Luckily for his fans Thomas delivers. Ash and Bones is a superior police procedural to much of the opposition. Quite simply it’s a better story. First let’s look at the plot. A squad of police raid a flat looking for low-level criminal. Unfortunately, someone else is there and one of their number is gunned down and killed. The occupant of the flat, the criminal they were after, is also shot and ends up in a coma. Enter DC Will McReady and his colleagues in the CID. It’s Will’s first day and he’s frustrated to have a bit part in the murder investigation, shunted onto other cases with a colleague, Sergeant Charlie Becks.

Of course Will, who has various problems at home, isn’t willing to take this and is determined to insert himself into the centre of the action. This might sound predictable, the cop with the dysfunctional personal life playing maverick, but Thomas is too smart a writer to play that trick. While it’s true that Will manages to bend the rules and uncover leads that others have risked it’s not without cost. There are consequences to his lone ranger antics and his superiors first bollock him and later punish him for doing so. Also his actions have real negative effects and at one point an officer alongside him gets seriously hurt in direct consequence of him disobeying orders. Real police work is teamwork and while the author gives his protagonist leeway to pull the narrative along, this is never forgotten in this tale.

The other thing I liked is he avoids what I consider the lazy device of the serial killer. In my opinion far too many crime writers have a serial killer in their novels. And not just a serial killer, one who kills in outlandish and byzantine ways. As well as being cheesy and completely unrealistic, I’ve always found these tales - the writers of whom seem to enjoy just a little too much penning scenes of young women being tortured and abused - sensationalist and salacious. Thomas forges a different path. His tale revolves around some nasty criminals but they’re not the lazy creations of most writers. And while there is violence in this book, descriptions of bodies which have been tortured and butchered, it’s never titillating.

In fact, the author has managed that rare beast: a crime novel that is both hugely enjoyable whilst also trying to say something. The reader feels like they get an insight into the coal face of policing in modern British city, the nature of organised crime, the jaded cynicism of some police officers whilst others (in this case Will and Sergeant Becks) try to keep hold of their humanity.

In conclusion this is a really good read and an impressive start to a new series. On Amazon it’s listed as Ash & Bones (Will McReady 1) so I guess we will revisit Will and Co in the future. I hope it’s soon and I will be reading.

5 stars  

Good Cop, Bad War by Neil Woods with JS Rafaeli

It takes a certain courage for a person to take an unflinching look at their life’s work, a cold, forensic, unwavering look. Most people simply don’t have the guts to do so, perhaps fearing that they might come up wanting. Neil Woods is not most people. Neil spent fourteen years infiltrating drug gangs as an undercover police officer; he put his life on the line many a time, he was responsible for the capture, prosecution and conviction of numerous dangerous criminals. And yet when he took that critical look at his life’s work he could only conclude one thing: that it was a complete waste of time. That the war on drugs had failed, that his part in it had failed.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. Reading Good Cop, Bad War, it’s clear that more than a few of the people he helped convict needed to be taken off the street. These were dangerous and deeply unpleasant people. Throughout his deployments in towns and cities across the UK he dealt with psychopaths and villains who preyed on addicts, torturing, maiming and killing those who crossed them. The violence these people displayed was gratuitous and ugly, the contempt they showed their victims heartless and inhumane. And Neil did take them off the streets, and was very effective at doing so. But herein lay the problem: no matter how often he knocked a villain off his perch (I say “he” for they most often were men), no matter how many he took down, there was always another to take their place.

Right from the beginning of Good Cop, Bad War, Neil comes across as an idealist. He joined the police wanting to “fight the good fight”, to help the downtrodden. He writes about being appalled by the casual racism he encountered, first at training college and later in various deployments, and the attitudes some officers held towards addicts, down and outs, and other vulnerable communities. Throughout his accounts of his various deployments he writes with compassion for the addicts he encountered, describing their characters and personalities. This is a man with real empathy for the people he was trying to help, an outlook that is seriously at odds with most books penned by former police officers.

In fact, this is something that sets apart this remarkable work. I’ve read numerous police biographies, not a few by undercover officers, and none show such sensitivity to the people they met. Many such accounts demonstrate a jaded cynicism, combined with a macho posturing. There is little of that here and it’s a refreshing change. This ability to emphasise with the underdog might explain how the doubts started, it is certainly the case that Neil found it difficult when the very addicts he felt for were rounded up with the hardened gangsters when an operation came to a close. The powers that be saw little difference between an addict dealing to fund their habit and the gun-toting thugs a rung above and would charge them both just as happily. And unlike many of his colleagues, this stuck in Neil’s craw.

But it’s the sheer illogicality of the war on drugs that finally broke him. As a former current affairs journalist I can sympathise. For facts are facts and prohibition isn’t working. This is demonstrable on any measure. ON average street prices have fallen year in year, a clear demonstration that interdiction isn’t preventing drugs from reaching our shores. The population of addicts is rising. Violence in our inner cities is as bad as ever - while crime rates as a whole are falling, knife crime and gun crime is hardly a thing of the past on the sink estates that dot British cities.

What’s most alarming is the point Neil demonstrates with painful clarity: that police action drives much of this. Gangs have learnt the lessons of undercover policing, informants, etc. During his career he witnessed increased brutality, violence meted out to addicts who spoke out, or even who introduced a stranger to their dealer. Corruption within the police is also driven by the huge profits generated by drugs. Neil recounts how at one point, while chasing a major league dealer in Manchester, he came into contact with a secret squad of twelve police officers. This squad had been specifically set up to pursue this gangster in utmost secrecy, so fearful was the Commissioner of the Greater Manchester force that corrupt officers might tip the man off. How have we come to such a situation, Neil asks? That a secret squad has to be set up to guard against corruption.

It will be tempting for those in favour of prohibition to paint Neil Woods as a limp-wristed, bleeding-heart liberal. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Throughout his career he got results, got the job done, locked up some really bad people. Indeed, there is no doubt that some of those involved in the drug trade are vicious bullies and would be whatever the case, after all a bully is a bully, no matter what walk of life he or she is found. But it’s equally evident that drugs are the most profitable aspect of criminal behaviour, that without prohibition the money gangsters could make would be much reduced. In fact, I would argue that Neil’s stance that something has to change, as well as being personally brave in that it calls into question much of his former achievements, is actually tougher on criminality than the prohibition brigade. For what hurts criminals more than an attack on their wallets? Find a solution to the drug problem, rob the villains of their incomes, and one does more damage to organised crime than any number of convictions. Less money from drugs means less money to invest in other criminal activity, too.

To be clear, Neil doesn’t argue for simple legalisation, he doesn’t want to see crack and heroin sold in Tesco’s. In fact he’s honest enough to admit to not knowing all the answers. He points to Portugal where simple possession of drugs has been decriminalised (not possession with intent to supply, e.g. dealing) and states in America where Cannabis has effectively been legalised, as pointing to possible solutions. But what he does insist on is a debate. For make no mistake, as this book abundantly makes clear, current policy has failed.

A painfully honest and touching memoir, this books is a must read for anyone even remotely concerned by the issues raised.

5 Stars

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

By Gaslight by Stephen Price

Clocking in at a hefty 752 pages, By Gaslight is a doorstopper of a book. It might best be described as a literary historical crime thriller, and is set for the most part in the London of 1885. Famed American detective William Pinkerton is in London chasing a mysterious thief of some infamy, the elusive Edward Shade. Meanwhile, Adam Fool, a gentleman swindler is also in London having received a letter from a lost love, Charlotte Reckitt. Their paths cross when Fool learns that Reckitt has apparently been murdered, and what’s more, Pinkerton was one of the last people to see her alive as she was a promising lead in his pursuit of Edward Shade. What follows is a cat and mouse game as both Pinkerton and Fool try to find out what happened to Reckitt and why, albeit for their own very different reasons, and all the while trying to suss out the other’s motives and plans for the future.

The narrative is told from both men’s perspective, with chapters alternating between the two. While for the most part the action takes place in the London of 1882, there are flashbacks which tell both men’s’ backstory. We learn of Mr. Foole’s childhood in India, how after his father died he was marooned in America in poverty, how he found himself fighting in the American Civil War. For Mr. Pinkerton we discover the huge shadow his father, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, has cast over his life, how he has followed in his father’s footsteps. All this cements the two men’s’ histories and helps give a feel of almost deterministic inevitability to what follows.

Writing a novel is hard as any author, aspiring or successful, will know. Crafting a compelling tale which can keep the readers’ interest without succumbing to various pitfalls - a sagging middle, a damp squib of an ending - is a real skill. Managing this over a book the length of By Gaslight is another proposition entirely. Stephen Price manages just this with admirable aplomb. This wasn’t a book that could be digested in one sitting, it’s length prevents that, but at no point was I ever tempted not to return.

In large part the author’s success is down to superb plotting. For example, there were small moments towards the start of the story, that one assumed were to flesh out characterisation, that later gained significant import. But I think a more significant element to keeping the reader engaged was the author’s poetic turn of phrase. It was no surprise to learn that Stephen Price is also a published poet. Quite simply there were times when the writing was sublimely beautiful.

By Gaslight is both a gripping and really quite moving read. I really grew too care what happened to the characters who peopled its pages, and not just the two main protagonists, Pinkerton and Foole. The London of the 19th Century really does come to life in this epic tale and I can highly recommend it. 

5 out of 5 stars