Wednesday, June 24, 2009
True confession time: I've been a fan of Ray Banks and his woe-begotten Manchester ex-con private eye, Cal Innes, for years, ever since I first published "Walking After Midnight," one of his early Cal Innes stories way back in 2003.
I can't claim to have "discovered" Ray, or even to have been the first to publish him, but nonetheless I feel quite pleased for his success, and even a little proud, no matter how misplaced that pride might be, that I may have contributed even a miniscule bit to it. And I've liked his three subsequent novels featuring Innes well enough to name 2007's Donkey Punch (known in the U.S. as Sucker Punch) as one of my picks for January Magazine's Best of 2007.
But nothing prepared me for Beast of Burden, his latest novel. Maybe it was the mood I was in, maybe I was desperate for something good to read after a disappointing spate of shitty books, or -- and this is more likely -- maybe Ray Banks is just one hell of a writer really, finally kicking out the jams.
But, for whatever reason, this is, hands down, one of the most affecting books I've read in a long time.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I'm fucking floored.
I knew Ray was good, but this one just... well, I'm still reeling. As I said about Donkey Punch back then, "What separates Banks’ writing from that of so many other 'new wave of noir' writers is that he actually seems to understand noir and what lies right at its deep, dark heart. He doesn’t have to rely on juvenile, self-conscious shock tactics... to tell his story. Instead, he does it the old-fashioned way -- by creating credible, memorable characters and telling an actual story. Don’t get me wrong: nasty things do happen... but it’s the characters that really matter."
I still stand by that, but Beast of Burden hits so much harder and sets the bar so bloody high, it's difficult to see where Banks could possibly go after this. It's truly mortal stakes he's playing for this time, as Cal, reeling from his brother's recent suicide and suffering from a stroke that's left him partially paralysed, reluctantly goes to work for notorious local mobster Morris Tiernan, who wants him to find his missing son, Mo, a useless piece of crap/wannabe crime lord that even his own father doesn't particularly want anything to do with.
This is no jolly cozy set in a picture postcard of swinging modern Manchester -- this is a cold, ugly rough wind of a novel, and Banks makes this ugly scab of a hardscrabble industrial town come alive, offering no apology or mercy. This is the Manchester the shiny happy trendies and tourists don't see; this is the Manchester of rundown buildings and squats, of boxing clubs and dives, of piss and despair and regret. And the whipsaw first-person narration, split between Cal and his old nemesis, Detective Sergeant "Donkey" Donkin, possibly the most venal, stupid and just plain evil cop to pollute the genre in ages, just cranks up the tension. It's rough and abrasive and unrelentingly coarse, but never feels forced or phoney or gratuitous.
That these two men are on a collision course is a given, but the fact neither truly understands the other's motives rips this story loose from any preconceptions I might have had. This is contemporary noir at its absolute ground zero finest: dark, disturbing and nasty, but tempered with surprising acts of friendship, loyalty and honour and just plain humanity so moving and real that they're a spit in the face of the glib cynicism and shallow posturing that currently taints too much of the genre.
It's hard to believe, in a novel that trucks so much in misery and greed and stupidity and hate, but the ending, when it comes, is still like a knife in the gut. It's one of the most ballsy, most disturbing and yet most moving conclusions to a crime novel I've read in a long, long time.
Beast of Burden goes on sale in the U.S. in a few weeks (or maybe it's already out; books from the U.K. seem to have a hard time crossing the Atlantic according to schedule). But if you give a damn at all for hard-boiled fiction, get this book.