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Underground Reading: Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

Review Round-Up: JK Rowling, James Smythe and Johnny Church

Four recent reads of note, including a belated visit to The Casual Vacancy, a pre-release review of the upcoming James Smythe thriller and two very vintage, very cheesy private eye stories from Vechel Howard.

Casual-vacancy-cover-art-hi-resJ.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy (2012) features the perfect little town of Pagford, an insular country village with a good school, a nice church and a fete or two. Hot Fuzz territory. But under the surface, it is a wriggling back of seething tensions! The death of a popular member of the town council proves the catalyst for a lot of loosed tensions. Alliances political, marital and familial are all destroyed as gentle Pagford's secrets all come to light.

Machiavellian politics, teen angst, claustrophobic small town drama, a bit of political corruption... plus, an author I can rely on for great characters and atmosphere. Yet, and I'm sad to say it - The Casual Vacancy really disappointed me.

Ultimately, the book was, well, mean. Although there's a veneer of good, clean progressive politics to it, The Casual Vacancy conveys a world where everyone is a bit despicable. Social workers, the middle and working class, children, mothers, families... at best, they're all victims, but more often than not, they're busily victimising someone else. Rowling's ability to craft memorable characters backfires in a way: the more I got to know each resident of Pagford, the more I disliked them.

Nor, despite the shock ending, did The Casual Vacancy ever get dramatically dark. The lesson was that the world is a seedy, dirty place, with only a few people carrying candles to light the way - and even then, reluctantly. 

As far pure quality goes, The Casual Vacancy clearly demonstrates that Rowling has far more to offer than Harry Potter (not that Harry Potter isn't a damn good series). But at the risk of sounding almost Umbridgely fastidious: this book was not to my taste.

086428-FC50Fortunately, I got the dark political fix I was looking for with James Smythe's upcoming No Harm Can Come to a Good Man (2014).

Out on the 22nd, No Harm is the story of Laurence Walker, the front-runner to become the next President of the United States.

However, Laurence shouldn't celebrate just yet, as the road between now and the White House is paved with unthinkable tragedy and unknowable challenges. Or maybe not completely unknowable. ClearVista, the ultimate Big Data software, is a prediction software used for everything from search results to stock market forecasting. Laurence and his rivals consult the algorithmic Oracle as part of the campaign process, and the results are surprising. Cataclysmic, even.

Just taken at its most superficial level, No Harm may be the best political thriller since The Manchurian Candidate - a tale of conspiracy and manipulation, and the almost-extraordinary people caught in the wake of the world's great invisible powers. And yet, No Harm is far more than that. It is a novel of predestination and free will, and how those titanic concepts continue to clash in the age of mathematical supremacy. It is a novel of surveillance and privacy, and how the right to know conflicts with some of our most fundamental emotional needs. And it is a novel of power and love, and ambition and family and truth and justice and the American Way - yet still as far from either saccharine or Superman as could possibly be imagined. It is a novel that is ruthlessly harrowing yet oddly and bleakly triumphant, demonstrating there is no future dictated by a machine that could ever match the chaotic potential of the human spirit.

Possibly not cheering, but undeniably great. Unlike The Casual Vacancy, No Harm Can Come to a Good Man doesn't wallow in mud as much as embrace the darkness. There's nothing petty about it. This book is passionate, heartbreaking, even epic in its own way. As much as I recommend each and every one of James Smythe's books, No Harm Can Come to a Good Man may rank alongside The Machine as his very best. This is a powerful new book from one of the great new voices in British fiction.

And to lower the tone a bit - two Gold Medals by Vechel Howard, Johnny Church mysteries Murder With Love (1959) and Murder on Her Mind (later 1959).

Murder on her mindJohnny Church is a PI out of San Francisco, but both novels take place on the road. In the first, Murder With Love, he's on the prowl for a missing woman - the beautiful Mira Whitney. Mira's a proper, possibly even professional, heartbreaker. She's been in Reno to file for divorce, but Johnny's client, her soon-to-be-ex is more concerned about her absence than any sort of shenanigans. And, as Johnny snoops around, her finds that Mira's left a trail of awe-struck ex-beaus - including a Hollywood heart-throb and rich businessmen from around the nation. Even Johnny finds himself drawn to the elusive Mira as, whilst on the hunt for her, he learns more and more about her life...

Murder On Her Mind takes Johnny into Mexico, investing the extremely untimely death of an American playboy. He discovers that the dead man had one hell of a life, including, amongst other hobbies and luxuries, three beautiful mistresses. It doesn't take Johnny long to come to the conclusion that one of them was behind the murder, but which one? Obviously this is going to take a lot of close investigation. Nudge. Wink.

Although both mysteries are over the top - positively dripping with man-manly machismo - there's something gloriously kitschy in the Johnny Church books. These are proper pulp with a proper shamus who sniffs at the barrels of guns and finds clues wherever he puts his feet. And yet is fooled by people wearing wigs (more on that in a moment). They're less about the mystery than the lifestyle: the 'challenge' of interrogating the beautiful women (and invariably failing to, um, 'stay professional'), exotic locations (with swimming pools), dining with millionaires, driving fast cars and having punch-ups. These don't have the darkness of Gold Medal's best writers (MacDonald, Thompson) or the character depth of the second tier (Marlowe), but they're a lot of fun.

Back on the wigs - the hair colour of the women in both women is a major plot 'twist'. (Er. Spoiler, I suppose.) In Murder On Her Mind, Johnny tracks down the suspects based on stray hair, and then identifies and refers to them based on blonde, brunette and redhead. In Murder With Love (big spoilers), two women - with different hair colour - masquerade as a third woman (with yet another hair colour). And they do so successfully, fooling many, many people (including Johnny) with the aid of... a wig. Johnny actually sees everyone involved naked, and is still fooled by the simple application of... a wig. (Yeah. The more you think about it, the less it works. Just leave it.) To some degree, it even tricks the women as well: by putting on the wig, they slip into 'the role' and feel like a different person. There's an impressively elemental physiological sexism involved here, where the women in both books are reduced to entirely to attitudes, personalities and behaviours that are dictated by their hair colour. See also: Archie Comics, Cinderella, Hollywood in general.

And, in conclusion: probably my favourite cover ever.