There are moments when a full-length novel is just too much to get to grips with. So here are a few rapid reads which we’ve enjoyed recently, from contract killers to urban assassins, serial psychos to sibling rivalry, and a couple of stories with a subtle hint of the supernatural. Compact and carefully crafted, each one punches way beyond its weight…
FUNDAMENTAL ERROR by Martyn V Halm
The Katla Killfires series of short stories introduce the eponymous Amsterdam assassin, a sophisticated female trouble-shooter whose assignments are characterised by meticulous planning and creative killing. This is my favourite of the short stories thus far; an intriguing plot with real-world relevance told from two perspectives, chopping back and forth along a short timeline.
As usual, author Halm delivers his trademark scrupulous attention to detail (tradecraft, automotive; even architectural) which grounds this series in an all too recognisable modern reality. Yet the plot never gets bogged down in the detail as the narrative flashbacks really ramp up the tension. The end of every rapid chapter is a cliff-hanger, so once you start reading, there’s no option but to race right on to the end. A suicide bomber threatens to bring death and destruction to one of Amsterdam’s busiest shopping centres. Katla’s on the case… but Halm cunningly conceals her covert activities until the final, fulfilling reveal.
The only place where the storytelling slips slightly is in the somewhat confusing choreography of the action set-piece (and I wasn’t too clear on how the security services got involved, but maybe I missed that in my enthusiasm to cut through the chase). In any case, Fundamental Error is a cracking introduction to the character and this series. So refreshing to read of a female protagonist who is also an entirely competent professional.
FOUR CORNERED by Frank Westworth
For a short story, Four Cornered delivers plenty. It’s set a decade or so ago, and we join ex-soldier JJ Stoner shortly after he’s been seconded to one of those shadowy government agencies which provide no paperwork but probably have black helicopters on standby. If you’ve read any of the author’s other stories or novels then many of the characters will be familiar – but it doesn’t matter if this is your first encounter with Stoner and his crew. All is explained… if not exactly obvious.
Taking its cues from real-life incidents, Four Cornered involves an urban stake-out which turns into a live-fire incident, and an almost surreally sinister encounter in rural middle England. In between, Stoner lets off steam with some satisfyingly mindful violence which demonstrates not only that his temper’s on a short fuse, and that his official ID carries some weight with the constabulary, but that he’s perfectly happy to do unto others before they get a chance to even think about upping the ante.
What else? Snappy dialogue, ribald moments of risqué entertainment, stylish writing, bone-snapping fight sequences, and a jaw-droppingly honest action sequence at the end. The author deliberately undermines all those Hollywood impossibilities in which the hero can hit anything from 500 yards while being impervious to a blizzard of fire from the bad guys. It’s a brave tactic, and it brings a commensurately powerful emotional pay-off.
That’s maybe the secret to why the Stoner stories are so good. They’re pure fiction, but the core of the man and his misadventures is compellingly true to life.
THE LIBERATOR by Paul D Brazill
From the opening sentences of this gripping mini-thriller, the reader is kept confused but captivated. You’re never quite sure what’s going on; we start with the central character, a priest, scrabbling wounded in darkness, a captive, clawing his way to escape. The canvas extends into rapid action as Brazill scatters clues to the back story. The narrative weaves between bleak banter and gritty backstreet noir, touching on the supernatural but firmly grounded in modern reality.
The writing is superbly stylish, with some sentences honed until not a single superfluous syllable remains. The action sequences are punchy, deliberately cold, hard-edged and unforgiving. And when it comes, the final resolution is both shocking and infinitely sad.
INSULATION by Craig Saunders
A thoroughly enthralling hour-long read; ‘Insulation’ starts with perhaps the best description I’ve ever read of a migraine headache, capturing the nauseating, blinding, pounding misery, and then rapidly escalates into psycho-killer chiller territory.
Craig Saunders has a real gift for a compelling description which drags you into the action, and there’s plenty to wince and flinch at in ‘Insulation.’ It’s gory and savage, lewd and destabilising. The plot is nothing less than outrageous… but still, the writing firmly grounds the action in suburban England. This isn’t fantasy-horror. This is here-and-now, the quiet man next door, the unknown axe murderer. A charming seaside town; the delights of genteel afternoon tea artfully contrasted with murderous insanity.
And it’s gleefully indulgent in tension and graphic, bloody description.
THE NIGHT JUST GOT DARKER by Gary McMahon
An artful suspense thriller with supernatural overtones, this novella starts with suburban insomnia and spirals ever outward, into the territory of ancient folklore and the rising tide of the evil that men do unto each other. Yet the writing remains solidly grounded in the mundane existence of an everyman; alone in the middle of a city of millions, ostracised from the woman he thinks he loves, struggling with ennui and the need to find meaning in his increasingly bleak existence. A night on the town goes weirdly awry, and if you’ve never woken up in an unfamiliar location, sweat-soaked and vomit-stained and with an uncomfortable impression that you may have had ill-advised sex not so long ago, then here you can experience most of those delights, secondhand and slightly soiled.
I normally shy away from stories where writers write about writers, but here McMahon has pitched it perfectly – no trace of self-indulgence (and even an acknowledgment of the peril of this path). ‘The Night Just Got Darker’ reminded me of a couple of old Stephen King yarns; in particular, the one where the family cat defends a cabin every night from Unspeakable Awfulness, coming home increasingly tattered. This has a similar vibe.
DEAD LINE by Pat Dennis
Sibling rivalry gets way out of hand in this knowing insight into middle aged, mid-America. From childhood into later life, one sister has always excelled at getting everyone’s attention at holiday times – Christmas, birthdays, Thanksgiving, Easter, even St Patrick’s Day. But the over-shadowed sister always had halloween to call her own. Until this year, when friendly rivalry accelerates into something rather darker…
A modern day morality tale of sorts, Dead Line make all kinds of painfully accurate comments about modern society, family feuds and tired relationships – and wraps that in an entertaining yarn with a clever twist at its core. A fun half hour.
All reviews by Rowena Hoseason