Murderers, thieves, political killers and private investigators – these are the people who populate Simon Maltman’s new collection of 12 short stories. I say ‘new’, but if you’ve read his novel, ‘A Chaser On The Rocks’ then you’ll recognise Billy Chapman, a private investigator who plies his trade in the 1940s while Belfast suffered its own Blitz.
A couple of the other stories have been published as stand-alones, too, like ‘Return Run’ which features my favourite bad boy, Blake. He’s an old-school thug with a heart of gold… well, sort of. An armed robber who plays by his own rules and his own code. And heaven help the schmuck who attempts to beat Blake at his own, no-holds-barred game.
All the stories are set Maltman’s home stomping ground, in and around Belfast in Northern Ireland. Inevitably, the political situation acts as backdrop to each situation although it’s only front and centre in a couple of the stories. Instead these are mainly tales of criminal subcultures, of the shady transactions that take place in pubs and coffee bars across the country. Thieves, liars, cheats and fools – even a WW2 spy and an intriguing missing person investigation. And ‘Riot Score’, set against the backdrop of a Belfast ablaze with street violence, brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of ‘The Long Good Friday.’
Of the stand-alones, ‘Blood and Botany’ is an excellent example of the short story form: it implies much more than it explicitly describes and crams an entire narrative into a few short pages. The reader can only guess at what normally goes on behind McClaine’s forbidding black gates – Maltman gives us hints, but the story is tightly focused on a knife fight which rapidly escalates into the realm of arboreal instruments…
Only one of the stories in this anthology missed the mark for me: Political Suicide is a non-stop action set-piece where I couldn’t quite get a handle on who was shooting at whom and why. This one did need a little more background for me to enjoy it. I can see it would work as part of a longer story, where the characters and their relationships with various Sinn Fein and IRA offshoots could be developed.
If you haven’t tried any of Maltman’s fiction before then this collection is an ideal introduction. It showcases his flair for adrenalin-packed action and unpredictable protagonists. Each story delivers a real sense of place and time; the grey drizzle of wartime deprivation or the contemporary grit of 21st century killers who still have to make a living in the wrong side of the streets, peace process or no…
However, if you have read ‘A Chaser In The Rocks’ then be warned: the four Billy Chapman stories in this collection are also in that book so they won’t be new to you. Still, that leaves you with eight others to enjoy.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
‘More Faces’ by Simon Maltman is available as an ebook or paperback
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