Thursday, 26 July 2018

Drug Wars by Neil Woods and JS Rafaeli

This is the second book by Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer, and JS Rafaeli, a journalist and writer with Vice. Their first title, Good Cop, Bad War, was an account of Wood’s career infiltrating drug gangs around the country and why in the end he concluded the war on drugs was futile. I reviewed that book, awarding it the full five stars (see here: not least because it takes some guts to admit that the endeavours of one’s career have in effect been a colossal waste of time.

So, to Drug Wars, their follow on. This is a more cerebral book, in that it is an historical account of how we as a society got to the situation we are in, rather than the author’s experiences as an undercover officer. Woods and Rafaeli trace the origins of the war on drugs in Britain, placing this in the wider international context, particularly the drug war’s origins in American moral crusades.

The war on drugs has clearly failed. That much is so obvious the observation seems almost superfluous, yet those who support continued prohibition – and there are many who still do – seem unable or unwilling to accept it. What Drug Wars makes tragically clear however is not just that it was a failing endeavour right from the beginning, but that it never even needed to be fought, things were fine as they were. Nowhere is this clearer than in the section of the book that touches on heroin.

The fact is that for years the Britain had a small, yet stable, population of heroin addicts. In 1959 there were just 62 known heroin addicts in the UK. By 1964 there were 342. These were medics who started dipping into the medicine cabinet only to become addicted, ex-military and sailors who discovered the drug abroad, romantics who went looking after reading Cocteau, De Quincy, Kerouac and Burroughs. This is an important point, they weren’t kids off council estates lured by horrible dealers, because there weren’t any dealers. Why? Because once someone was an addict, they could just go to a GP and get heroin for free. This might sound like madness but giving addicts heroin was a pragmatic and entirely rational policy. It meant they had no need to steal to support their addiction, no need to sell their bodies, and crucially, no need to sell heroin to others to fund their habits. Prior to the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 – possibly one of the most catastrophic pieces of legislation ever to enter the statute book – the UK heroin population had grown to approximately 1000 addicts, but this was a slow and gradual growth, nothing like the explosion of addiction that would follow. 

Even after the passage of the Act, this British System survived for a while, but eventually, after years of relentless pressure from the Americans it was to end. The result? The instant creation of a lucrative criminal marketplace. Where before there was no point in drug cartels smuggling heroin into the UK – a lot of risk for little reward, when one’s customer base would abandon you for the NHS as soon as they got hooked – now, the business case for doing so was obvious. The resulting explosion in addiction, the violence, was inevitable. There were later attempts to recapture sanity, notably in Liverpool where the British system was brought back to life with marked success. But once again it was destined to be destroyed by the cant and faux moralising of War on Drugs brigade and the tabloid press

Other parts of the book tell the story of Operation Julie – a comical exercise in persecuting harmless hippies, which would be funny if it hadn’t ruined lives and the rave scene of the 1990’s when MDMA made teenagers loved up and gangsters extremely rich. But for sheer vividness of all that is wrong with the war on drugs, it was the section on heroin that was most powerful to me.

Finally, the authors demonstrate how the war on drugs has perverted and undermined the very criminal justice system tasked with tackling it. Here we meet Frank Matthews, the pseudonym of a former Met police detective and undercover officer turned whistle-blower. Frank served in some of the Met’s most sensitive units, not least that responsible for witness protection. He describes in graphic detail the corruption and ineptitude he saw there, wrongdoing that aided criminals and endangered those they were charged to protect. Indeed, the details are so shocking that it’s difficult to believe, for if they are even half true, UK policing is rotten to the core. Just how could it be possible, what’s caused this rot? The answer is clear: the drug market is so lucrative, the profits so great, that organised crime has corrupted the very institutions who’s task it is to control them.

Drug Wars is a powerful and depressing read, but it’s also a hopeful one. All over the world the signs are that people and societies are finally starting to see sense. From Portugal, to Latin America, people are saying that enough is enough, that prohibition has failed. Even states in the United States, that bastion of moralising conservatism, have legalised cannabis. For so long, the UK has refused to budge, despite our history of trying to do things differently, but just this week the government has reluctantly agreed to medical marijuana. Things can change, we can do things differently, we don’t have to fight this pointless, utterly pointless, war. 

This is an important book, essential reading, and I really can’t recommend it enough.

5 out of 5 stars

The Break Line by James Brabazon

As a former current affairs journalist, I spent the bulk of my career working on documentaries for Channel 4. I primarily worked as a researcher, then Assistant Producer, on Dispatches – Channel 4’s flagship current affairs strand – employed by various independent television production companies. The world of current affairs television is a relatively small one and the same names and faces tend to crop up all over the place. Some gain stellar reputations, becoming legends in their own rite. One such person was James Brabazon. While I never had the honour of working with him myself, he was someone who’s work I was well aware of, so when I discovered that he had written a thriller I was keen to read and review it.  

The Break Line follows Max Mclean, a British special forces soldier employed as a deniable asset by MI6 as an assassin. After a botched operation in Caracus, Max is hauled back to London to explain himself. He’s then sent on another mission, to take out the Russian leader of a guerrilla outfit threatening the stability of Sierra Leone. But things aren’t all they seem and right from the start there’s something very odd about this mission.

I have to confess to starting this novel with some trepidation after my initial excitement. I had imagined the author would write a thriller about a journalist or film maker, when I realised that instead his main character was a special forces soldier, I worried that this would be yet another clone of Andy McNab. Neither, once I started reading, did the first-person narrative gel for me. I don’t have a problem with first-person narrative normally, but for some reason I felt that this would have been better written in third-person. Perhaps, knowing that the author isn’t former military, the first-person narrative just seemed like he was trying too hard. That all said, I soon got into the story and left these reservations behind, not least because to his credit the author carves out a different route to that of other stories of this ilk. Rather than a military/espionage thriller the story swiftly becomes a sci-fi/horror tale. I won’t divulge spoilers, but needless to say what’s waiting for Max in the sweltering Sierra Leonean jungle is a lot more sinister than a ragtag guerrilla army. 

The author does a great job of cranking up the tension throughout and as he gets nearer to his target there’s a real sense of foreboding in the air. Another reviewer observed that the novel is very filmic and that perhaps this reflects the author’s pedigree. I agree with this and can easily imagine The Break Line being transferred to the silver screen. 

The novel reads like the start of a series, certainly I can imagine Max returning in the pages of another title. If he does, it will be interesting to see where the author takes him, does he turn to more traditional military/espionage fare or does he stick to sci-fi/horror storylines? 

4 out of 5 stars

Sins As Scarlet by Nicolás Obregón

This is the author’s second novel, a sequel to his debut Blue Light Yokohama (a title which I reviewed, see here: Once again, we’re with Kosuke Iwata, though post the events of Blue Light Yokohama he’s no longer with Tokyo’s homicide division, but instead has returned to California where he works as private eye, surveilling unfaithful husbands. But when his late wife’s mother approaches him and demands his help solving the murder of Meredith, her transgender daughter and the sister of Kosuke’s wife, he has no choice but to acquiesce. He soon finds that Meredith’s death isn’t the first, that there’s been a string of transgender women murdered. As his investigation unfolds, Kosuke soon finds himself embroiled in a malevolent conspiracy.

One of the selling points of the original book was that it gave the reader an insight into both Japanese culture and Japanese policing, worlds that are not very understood by many in the West. I have to admit to being a little disappointed that the author has chosen to move away from that and relocate his hero to LA. In an already very crowded marketplace – crime fiction is the most popular genre in the UK, hugely popular throughout the world, and consequently many crime novels are published each year – it felt like he had sacrificed his USP. That said, the first novel established Kosuke as a character and I was keen to see how he progressed, while the book is well written and so I soon forgot these minor reservations.

In some ways Sins As Scarlet harks back to the great PI novels of old, there was something a little Philip Marlowe about the lonely character Kosuke cut as he traipsed around the seedier side of LA working his case. This is obviously a grittier read than such titles though, more Chandler meets James Elroy. Sins As Scarlet also touches on some sensitive and current themes: illegal immigration, transgender issues, the violence and discrimination both communities face. As well as the main plot, the author takes the time to flesh out Kosuke and his tortured family background somewhat more and we get a deeper understanding of what makes the character tick. This bodes well for the continuation of the series. 

Sins As Scarlet is an accomplished novel and a great read. I enjoyed it as much as the author’s debut, albeit on a different level. It’s a very different book to the Blue Light Yokohama, the move away from Japan and back to the States giving Sins As Scarlet a very different vibe. This isn’t a bad thing, both books are enjoyable, but it is worth mentioning. It will be interesting to see where book three takes us and I look forward to reading it.

4 out of 5 stars  

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Cover reveal! Brother In Blood by Amer Anwar

Winner of the CWA Debut Dagger.

A Sikh girl on the run. 

A Muslim ex-con who has to find her. 

A whole heap of trouble Southall, West London. 

After being released from prison, Zaq Khan is lucky to land a dead-end job at a builders' yard. All he wants to do is keep his head down and put the past behind him. But when Zaq is forced to search for his boss's runaway daughter, he quickly finds himself caught up in a deadly web of deception, murder and revenge. With time running out and pressure mounting, can Zaq find the missing girl before it's too late? And if he does, can he keep her - and himself - alive long enough to deal with the people who want them both dead? 

"An engaging hero, a cunning plot, and a fascinating journey into Southall’s underworld. We’ll be hearing a lot more from Amer Anwar." – Mick Herron

"A fine debut novel. With his engaging characters and skilful plotting, Anwar brings a fresh and exciting new voice to the genre." – Ann Cleeves

Published by: Dialogue Books Release date: 6th September 2018 
Also available as ebook and audiobook. 

Author Bio:
Amer Anwar grew up in West London. After leaving college he had a variety of jobs, including; warehouse assistant, comic book lettering artist, a driver for emergency doctors and chalet rep in the French Alps. He eventually landed a job as a creative artworker/graphic designer and spent the next decade and a half producing artwork, mainly for the home entertainment industry. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London and is a winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award. Western Fringes is his first novel. For everything else, he has an alibi. It wasn’t him. He was never there.

Monday, 9 July 2018

The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox

This is the author’s second novel and a sequel to his incredibly impressive debut, Sirens (you can read my review of Sirens here: Once again, we’re with Detective Aidan Waits, a deeply flawed officer with Greater Manchester Police. Waits has a history of drug abuse and corruption, he’s also a man with many enemies having been pressed into undercover work in the plot of Sirens against some of Manchester’s biggest crime gangs. 

In The Smiling Man, we find Waits relegated to the night shift, alongside his partner, DI Peter “Sutty” Sutcliffe. Sutty is another deeply flawed character; obnoxious, a man who revels in the misery of those he encounters. The night shift they’re assigned to entails patrolling the city in an unmarked car, responding to any call outs that might require a CID presence. They then hand the cases over to the “proper” CID in the morning. So, it’s a dead-end and thankless shift, a graveyard for problem officers such as Sutty and Waits.

One night, the two are called to an incident at The Palace, a derelict hotel. There they find the night-watchman has been assaulted and upstairs, on the fourth floor, a corpse with a rictus smile. The labels of the man’s clothes have been cut out, his teeth and fingerprints altered, nothing on his person to identify him. The case is going nowhere and Sutty and Waits are allowed to keep ownership, Sutty wanting to close it down as suicide for his stats (the assault on the security guard written off as a coincidence). Waits, at heart having a core of decency, won’t let it lie however and begins to investigate. 

There are a number of strong subplots supporting this central tale – a vulnerable student in need, a ghost from Waits’ past rearing its head to torment him. Together with the main plotline they create a compelling tale. Some reading this might spot a flaw: would CID really allow Sutty and Waits to keep the case of The Smiling Man for themselves? Would it not be subject to the full murder inquiry treatment? Of course, the answer is yes, but this misses the point.

One of the things I loved about Sirens, and equally enjoyed when reading The Smiling Man, is a certain confidence to not be too realistic. That might sound counter-intuitive, but to my mind too many crime writers try too hard to pursue realism. They research police procedure ad nauseum and try desperately to make their books as accurate as can be. Joseph Knox has sidestepped that urge. First, in Sirens, he made Waits an undercover officer on a deniable op, thus freeing him of the need to adhere to the rules. In The Smiling man he performs a similar trick with his graveyard night shift. Yes, in the real world The Smiling Man case would likely be taken off him and Sutty, but Knox writes so well, crafts such a convincing narrative – a Manchester and Great Manchester Police almost dystopian in its dysfunction – that the artistic license is believably compelling.

I so happened to read The Smiling Man when the GMP was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, a number of corruption scandals rumbling away in the news. It made for an ominous drumbeat to Knox’s fictional vision and if nothing else the reports might have given him ideas for future outings in the series. Like Sirens before it, The Smiling Man is a brilliant novel. Bring on book three!

5 out of 5 stars

It Was Her by Mark Hill

It Was Her is Mark Hill’s second book, a sequel to His First Lie (originally titled The Two O’Clock Boy). I reviewed Mark’s first book under its original tile (see my review here:

His First Lie introduced us to his DI Ray Drake and DS Flick Crowley and in particular Drake’s dark and twisted past. It Was Her picks up soon after the events of that novel and the two are still coming to turns with all that has happened. Unfortunately, they don’t have time to process those events and all they’ve been through because London is beset by a series of brutal killings – someone breaking into the homes of the well to do and slaughtering the occupants. Drake and his team are tasked with cracking the case and thus Drake and Crowley’s antagonism has to be put on hold. This isn’t helped by Crowley’s new love interest who seems a little too interested in Drake.

In the UK at least, crime fiction is the most successful literally genre at the moment. Whereas literature as a whole struggle for readers, crime sells. The problem with however is that bookshelves groan under the weight of crime novels and new titles come out all the time. If a writer wants to make their mark, they need to somehow elevate themselves from the crowd. One way to do that is to offer something unique. 

Without divulging spoilers to either of Mark’s novels, they both revolve around issues of adoption and foster care, the abuses that can occur. So far this is Mark’s USP and it has worked well, both books offering compelling and emotionally impactful stories. His characters are well rounded and fascinating. The cop with a troubled past and issues to grapple with can either be a convention or a cliché, depending how well the author writes it. Mark does the former and Drake feels fresh. 

It will be interesting to see whether Mark sticks with the adoption/care theme in future outings (though of course, Drake’s past means it will always be there to some extent) or whether he will branch into other territory now that his characters are established. He could either. There’s certainly territory to be mined in Drake’s past, indeed a subplot in It Was Her focuses on this and is clearly unresolved. Will that continue as a subplot in book three or move to centre stage?

It Was Her is a really good novel, straddling territory between the popular psychological thriller sub-genre and that of a noir police procedural. Mark is a talent to be watched and I look forward to reading his next novel

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, 2 July 2018

Nine Lives by Aimen Dean

At the offset it’s important to note that Nine Lives is a non-fiction account of one of the few spies Western intelligence has had at the heart of al-Qaeda. As such it gives a rare glimpse into the intelligence world, but more than that, this book gives an intuitive insight into al-Qaeda and jihad more broadly (including its latest incarnation, ISIS) and is in my opinion one of the best titles so far on the subject.

Aimen Dean is that rarest of people. A jihadi, an al-Qaeda member who rose through the ranks of that organisation to become, while not one of the leaders or upper tiers, a highly respected and influential figure. Then came disillusion and the fateful decision to turn against his former comrades-in-arms. Some in that situation might have just gone home, others might have struck out alone, perhaps joining a rival jihadist group. But Dean chose another path altogether. Through accident, serendipity, and courage of convictions, he chose to spy for Britain’s intelligence service, MI6

The author started his journey in Bosnia. The Russian occupation of Afghanistan had drawn to a close, the jihad there having attracted thousands of Muslims from around the globe and radicalised a generation. In the years afterwards, those who had gone to fight either returned home or looked for fresh battles, while those coming of age who had missed the conflict, dreamed of glory. The massacre of Bosnia’s Muslims by the Serbs provided them with a fresh outlet and Dean, now sixteen, was determined not to miss it. He travelled to the Balkan battlefield dreaming of martyrdom and while disappointed not to be granted his wish, he did see combat. 

But Bosnia also was where the first seed of doubt was planted. In one battle the jihadists captured a large number of Serb militia. There was debate as to what to do with them. In a sickening foretaste of ISIS atrocities to come decades later, the decision was made to behead them. This was done brutally and with relish. Dean refused to participate but was greatly disturbed by the bloodlust he saw in fellow fighters he considered friends. 

While Dean was shaken by these events, he remained a committed jihadi and in years to come would travel to Afghanistan where he eventually joined Bin Laden. It was here though that his doubts concerning Jihad finally came into stark relief. The 1998 embassy bombings killed 224 people (213 in Nairobi and 11 in Dar es Salaam) while injuring over 4000 (4000 in Nairobi and 85 in Dar es Salaam). The vast majority of the casualties were ordinary Kenyan and Tanzanian citizens going about their business, a large proportion of whom were Muslim. Yet in the al Qaeda training camps the news was met with celebration the casualties dismissed as not proper Muslims. The bombings had been planned to coincide with Friday prayers, so according to al Qaeda’s logic, any Muslims caught up in the conflagration had turned their back on God.

Sickened by what he saw, Dean travelled abroad on the pretext of needing medical treatment. Detained at the airport in Bahrain, he first came to the attention of the Bahraini intelligence services, and finally, that of MI6 where he was persuaded to spy.

This book was written in conjunction with Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, respected journalists who helped Morten Storm, another al Qaeda militant who spied for the West, write his memoir, Agent Storm. At The outset of Nine Lives they assure the reader that they’ve verified much of Aimen Dean’s story with their sources in the intelligence world. This is a good thing because the revelations within these pages are eye-opening.

In the reviews of this book in the press, much attention has been given to the revelation that the ban on passengers carrying laptops onto certain flights in the Middle East was due to intelligence that Hamayan Tariq, a car mechanic from Dudley, and now master bomb maker for al Qaeda, had invented a technique for disguising bombs as laptop batteries. While interesting, to my mind there are starker disclosures than this within this title’s pages. 

One of these is the author’s knowledge of al Qaeda’s efforts in chemical warfare. Aimen Dean was deeply involved in al-Qaeda’s chemical weapons programme when in the Afghan training camps (he was working for MI6 at this point and they asked him to continue with this work so that he could inform the intelligence services as to al-Qaeda’s progress). In particular, he describes how al-Qaeda succeeded with hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen chloride. They developed a crude but effective dispersal system, the mubtakkar. This was to be used in a 2003 plot against the New York subway that was called off by Ayman Zawahiri (then al-Qaeda’s number two). This device has never been used but it has come close to being so on a number of occasions and the author fears it is only a matter of time.  

The biggest disclosures in this title however aren’t so much “big ticket items” – attacks thwarted, plots uncovered, etc – but an insight into the jihadi mindset. As someone educated and yet deeply imbued in jihadism, Dean shows how the logic of al-Qaeda, and later ISIS, is deeply rooted in perverted interpretations of the Quran and Hadith. This is an important revelation, because some of ISIS’s destructive, and seemingly self-defeating behaviour, can be explained once this is understood. Another aspect I found eye-opening is how accepted and normalised fighting jihad has become. In families such as Dean’s - normal, well-to-do Middle Eastern families - a family member’s decision to travel to Syria to fight is a perfectly acceptable life-choice, even something to be proud. Again, this is something we in the West ignore at our peril.

Nine Lives is an incredibly enlightening read and one that a book review cannot really do justice. Post-9/11, and now with ISIS on the rampage, bookshelves groan under the weight of titles analysing these events. I have read a fair few myself. I have to say that this is far and away one of the best and written by someone with real, first hand understanding of the phenomenon.

5 out of 5 stars

The Serpent's Tail by Martin Dillon

Martin Dillon is one of Ireland’s foremost journalists and one of the best writers on the troubles. His seminal title, Dirty War, masterfully analysed the intelligence war that encompassed informers and special forces, while his title The Shankhill Butchers, shone a light on one of the darkest periods of the conflict, a band of loyalist paramilitaries that were more like serial killers. The Serpent’s Tail is Dillon’s first foray into fiction, albeit a novel loosely based on real events. 

Stephen KirkPatrick and Michael McDonnell are two Catholic teenagers working as informants for the RUC’s Special Branch. Kirkpatrick is a sensitive lad who just wants to escape to the United States for a new life with his girlfriend, Bernadette. McDonnell is a cocky and arrogant womaniser, who just wants money. Together, they’re recruited by a shadowy intelligence and military operation to do lasting damage to the IRA

I’m a huge fan of Dillon’s non-fiction work and so I really, really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, The Serpent’s Tail just didn’t do it for me. There’s a risk when someone who’s spent their career writing non-fiction turns to fiction, the two are very different skills. Martin Dillon isn’t the first heavyweight journalist to fall at the hurdle – various BBC journalists have tried their hand at writing fiction, and while some have succeeded, more have not, and included in the latter are some of the corporation’s stars. 

The Serpent’s tail labours under unconvincing characters. I just didn't find many of the characters in this book particularly believable. To be sure, some were well written, Stephen Kirkpatrick, the more sensitive of the two boys in particular. His cocky partner, Michael Mcdonnell, was simply implausible. Throughout the book, he’s fearless in the face of IRA interrogation, MI5 and the SAS. This is just an ordinary kid from the streets of Belfast and yet nothing fazes him. Then there are characters who seem to have no purpose whatsoever. Jimmy Carson, a neighbour to Stephen, who takes him under his wing, is one example. Clearly, Dillon meant him to be a foil to Stephen, someone who Stephen could confide in and who could guide him, but the parts of the book Jimmy features in seem just padding, and he spends his time dispensing cod psychology.

A final issue in this book is Dillon’s propensity to tell rather than show. Any good creative writing course will teach the budding author the power of “Show don’t Tell”. Simply put, instead of writing “so and so was angry”, the author describes their anger, how it manifests. On a larger scale, this can apply to a character’s motivations as well as the broader plot. Dillon appears not to have learnt that lesson and too much of this title is spent telling the reader what is going on. 

The Serpent’s Tail isn’t a bad book, but neither is it particularly good. There are flashes of brilliance here, the novelist Dillon could be. I hope he writes a second novel, for he has the potential to become as good a novelist as he is a non-fiction author, though I think he should hone his craft further first.

3 out of 5 stars