Riding Shotgun Review: American Story Telling At Its Finest

riding shotgun

Riding Shotgun and Other American Cruelties is an inventive collection of three novellas by the multi-talented Andy Rausch who is, alongside being a writer, is also an American film journalist, author, screenwriter, film producer, and actor.

This selection of three novellas pays homage to a range of genres, offering the reader a glimpse into the crime market in the USA. In the opening story, Easy-Peezy, the reader is transported to into an innovative take on a western as a group of outlaws pull off daring heists as they seek the riches stored in the country’s banks. The titular story, Riding Shotgun, is a pulp fiction esq caper featuring some superb examples of swearing in action (of which I thoroughly fucking approve).

Finally, Rausch portrays the exploits of a criminally minded hip-hop crew as they seek riches by sticking two finger to the established music scene in $crilla. Each novella is uniquely tailored to its setting and set-up, making for a consistently strong portrayal despite the varied styles Rausch employs.

Dialogue, something that, if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I am a massive fan of when done right, is expertly utilized here, particularly in Easy-Peezy’s wild west setting, where the characters are each given a individual voice to allow their status as establishment or out law to shine through. As mentioned before, the swearing Riding Shotgun is expertly crafted, and shows a great knowledge of how to really exploit voice in a story to heighten both the internal tension and the reader’s interest.

Overall, drawing on his vast and varied experiences, Andy Rausch has created three unique stories, each of which is an individual representation of America’s Crime Fiction history. From the wild west through to urban thrillers at their best, this creative selection of stories has something to please everyone.

Merlin at War Review: An Enticing Historical Thriller

front cover Merlin at War

As a rule, historical novels aren’t my thing, but I was intrigued by the concept of Mark Ellis’s Merlin at War, which I first encountered when I interviewed him for a blog tour recently. Set during the Second World War, the novel follows the exploits of detective Frank Merlin, who works to solve the numerous crimes that abound despite the escalating global violence.

The crimes in question are various but all, coincidentally, connected. First, the body of a young Irish woman who died as the result of a botched abortion is investigated; later, the abortionist himself is found killed at his boarding house. Merlin, who also has to deal with the bureaucracy of having one member of staff removed for fraternisation and replaced by an American, takes on both cases simultaneously.

Later, his friend, having just returned from fighting in Crete, visits him with a small problem, on which Merlin advises. Shortly afterwards this friend is also murdered, and so the detective and his team come up against corporate deception as they unravel his problem, which is linked to a case of embezzlement in a massive international bank.

History never has been my strong point, and as such I am not entirely certain if the depictions of the various historical figures in Merlin at War are even remotely accurate, but the characterisation overall is excellent. Everyone, from the snobbish bank employees through to Machiavellian officers in the various military and security services, are superbly depicted, with the dialogue carefully catered to their personalities to ensure both consistency and realism. Seedy, untrustworthy men are Ellis’s strongpoint and he does them well, with numerous characters from across the story portrayed with such skill that they make your skin crawl.

The novel flits around the world, from depictions of the Creation retreat to intrigue-ridden Buenos Aires, but it is London where the majority of the action takes place, and the city is bought to life thanks to Ellis’s stunning depictions. His seamless integration of setting into the narrative entices the reader and draws them further into this fascinating story.

As I mentioned, I have never been a big history buff, but I truly enjoyed Merlin at War. The one small issue I have is that I’m not entirely sure that attitudes in 1940s London would have been so relaxed, and as such the lack of prejudice on all fronts feels slightly unrealistic. Bernie Goldberg, the American detective who is placed with Merlin’s team, as well as the various other foreigner characters the reader encounters throughout the novel, seem to face very little racial backlash despite the hostile military situation and the general ignorance of and distrust towards other races that abounded at that time. I also find it incredibly hard to believe that widowed Merlin’s unmarried relations with his Polish girlfriend Sonia, who lives in his flat, would be tolerated so easily, with even the uptight Assistant Commissioner and his wife welcoming the unconventional couple with open arms.

Incorporating a wide variety of genres, including detective fiction, thriller, espionage and historical novel, Merlin at War is a truly spellbinding page turner that keeps you hooked right until the end.

Only Dead on the Inside Review

only dead on the inside

I’ve been a fan of the hilarious Twitter account of James Breakwell, AKA @XplodingUnicorn, for a couple of years now, and I enjoy his joking discussions on the absurdities of parenting. As I’m not a parent myself this may seem strange, but I can assure you that his tales of raising four girls under 10, a pig and a dog are utterly hilarious to this 20-something who uses them as validation to explain why she will never change my mind about having children (and to try and convince her housemates to band together and buy a pig instead).

So far, the latter endeavour has not been successful, and frankly neither has the former, as everyone is still convinced I’ll one day want a sprog of my own (why?!). For this, I entirely blame James for not having tried hard enough. But no matter. We are here to review his book, the result of his hard work tweeting about his family and their disdain for his love of tweeting about them. The book offers an informative guide for parents on how to survive if the dead ever start rising, so that it won’t just be just ‘smug, outdoorsy Millennials’ left when the end happens.

Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse is a remarkably through overview of everything a parent could possibly need to know about navigating the end of the world; from how to tell your kids the bad news to which toys make the best weapons. There’s even handy tips on how to survive everyday life with kids, such as how to check that your day-care provider isn’t overrun with zombies, making this a great read regardless of whether the end of the world is nigh. There are even helpful comic strips and charts throughout, offering the dual benefit of being easy to read and ensuring that the message gets through even to those who are reading whilst on the run, whether it be from brain eating zombies or disgruntled toddlers.

At the end of the day, (or the world), if you’re looking for genuine zombie survival tips then go watch The Walking Dead or ply Sean Bean with shots and see if he’ll give you some. If you want a light-hearted and witty representation of how parents can survive the apocalypse that is having children, as well as any literal zombie based issues that may come their way, then Only Dead on the Inside is the book for you.

Everglade Review: An Inventive Thriller That Packs a Punch


The fifth instalment in the Selena series, Everglade is a smart, streetwise novel about a smart, streetwise woman set on making crime pay.

Greg Barth delivers a strong novel as he charts the continued struggles of a cultured criminal trying to start afresh, but finding that life isn’t always that easy. Having barely survived the last drug war, Selena wants out, and is trying to build a new life for herself and clean up her act. But things aren’t that simple when you are walking away from a lucrative business in a trade where murder is as common as liquorice in a sweet shop, leading our likeable anti-heroine on a one woman war against some incredibly devious and powerful enemies.

Dialogue is a bit hit and miss, with some terribly tedious conversations punctuated by some witty one liners and some sharp, insightful comments. There are some great lines: “It’s just my kitchen. And I don’t care who I had to kill to get it.” However, these are often punctuated by clunky discussions and unrealistic conversations (at times, the level of concern for Selena’s wellbeing is wearing, given her otherwise excellent characterisation as a tough, hard-hitting criminal). Consistency would make the book a lot easier to read and ramp up the pace, but beyond that it is very difficult to fault this smart, charismatic thriller.

All in all this is an interesting and exhilarating thriller. With an interesting protagonist and a fast paced plot, this is a rip-roaring novel which is worth a read for the main character alone.

Malice Review: Rina Walker’s Back and as Exciting as Ever


The third in the Rina Walker series and the follow up to the excellent Threat (read my review HERE), Malice is every bit as thrilling and exciting as the previous two novels.

As the sixties swing away in the background, Rina finds herself at the centre of a gang turf war and tough cases come her way, sending our favourite hit woman on a whirlwind adventure. Duplicitous to the end, Rina fights as dirty as necessary for those she cares for as she battle against increasingly destructive and manipulative foes. There’s everything from kidnapping to hookers, with Fraser expertly touching on almost every trope thriller writers have ever used without making the text feel too overwhelming.

Like the previous two novels, dialogue is where Fraser both shines and surprises. Anyone who is a fan of his bumbling portrayal of Captain Hastings in TVs Poirot will find it incredible to read the truly spectacular lesson in swearing that makes The Thick of It sound like a nursery rhyme.

Characterisation is also excellent in this series; as well as the fantastically ballsy Rina, there are also a number of characters, both new and reoccurring, whose creepiness, scheming and downright vile natures make them incredibly interesting and who help drive the plot forward.

Fundamentally a solid thriller, Malice is not for the faint hearted; the depictions of violence in this extraordinary novel are both sensational and visceral. If you can handle it then this is the perfect summer showstopper to indulge in, and I would throughly recommend it. It’s not necessary to read the first two novels to understand Malice but if you find yourself light on reading and long on time then both Harm and Threat are worth a read as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Rina on our screens soon; these novels are definitely TV worthy.

A Whiff of Cyanide Review: Another Exceptional Modern Golden Age Mystery

a whiff of cyanide

The follow up to Miss Christie Regrets (read my review HERE) and the third in the Hampstead Murders series, A Whiff of Cyanide is another great spin on a traditional whodunit, with enough modern touches to really bring the Golden Age into the twenty first century.

Opening with a dinner party in true Golden Age style, the novel moves on to a writer’s convention, the inspiration for which, I am convinced, must have been taken from author Guy Fraser- Sampson’s personal experience. The vivid, scathing portrayal of the characters and the quick witted dialogue must have a holding in real life, I am sure, and there is something in the smugness of many of the main suspects that is definitely drawn from a previous encounter.

The victim is the unlikeable Chair of the Crime Writer’s Association, which is hosting the convention. With her leadership in dispute, her former friends in revolt and her career on the wane, the character has a troubled time until her eventual death, shortly after she revealed that she carries a bottle of cyanide with her as a sort of deranged prop.

Her murder forms the core backdrop to this fascinating novel, along with a number of interesting and well-integrated sub-plots revolving around the complicated lives of the investigative team that Fraser- Sampson expertly entwines with the main story. Fleshed out, the investigative team are a real success here, and this is one of the main things I like about these novels; the author knows exactly when to take example from Golden Age Crime Fiction, and when to insert more modern touches. In this case, the private detective, sidekick (usually of military extraction) and tame policeman trio which usually forms the protagonists for a traditional novel of this style is overhauled in favour of the more realistic team of experts from various fields, allowing scope for genuine discussion on the case and making the novel feel much more believable (in any day and age I find it tough to imagine former soldiers so at a loss for something to do with their time that they have to follow arrogant, eccentric detectives around and do their dirty work for them).

For anyone seeking an updated Golden Age series, the Hampstead Murders is, to my mind, the best out there. Fraser- Sampson weaves a thrilling and complicated narrative with enough to twists and turns to make the Queen of Crime herself proud. The only criticism I have is that, unlike the first two novels, A Whiff of Cyanide is, at times, a little heavy handed with the symbolism. One of the suspects is a character who has changed her name, by Deed Poll, to Miss Marple. Although Fraser- Sampson wins points for the fact that, as the character is portrayed as an actor who previously played Miss Marple of TV, I did have a bit of a laugh trying to work out if this had any real life significance, and if so who it would be based upon, this seems a little like overkill to me and made the novel feel a little obvious.

However, looking beyond this, the novel is, overall, a triumph for modern detective fiction and I feel certain that A Whiff of Cyanide, alongside the two preceding novels in this masterful series, will end up as a classic novel in a few year’s time.

Need You Dead Review: Roy Grace is Back and Ready to Go

Need You Dead. HB. High Res Jacket

Following on from the fascinating interview author Peter James gave me recently (check it out HERE) I review his latest novel featuring his Brighton based detective Roy Grace, Need You Dead.

The thirteenth Roy Grace novel is as steely and intriguing as the others, with dizzying twists throughout the narrative that will keep even the most jaded reader hooked right to the end.

Grace, still reeling from the recent revelations about his missing, now late wife Sandy and the arrival of the son he never knew they had, is drawn into a seemingly open and shut murder case. The victim had an abusive husband with a history of escalating violence who runs when confronted by the police.

However, discoveries about the victim and her colourful private life come to light that threaten Grace’s team’s certainty. With twists and turns in every chapter, James does his utmost to keep the reader hooked right to the end, an even a seasoned whodunit reader won’t guess the explosive twist implemented right at the very end of the novel.

The ultimate thriller, this novel is well researched and features a number of memorable characters. It is characterisation that really scores James points in Need You Dead; from Grace’s team of coppers through to the myriad of shady suspects, everyone has a great internal monologue and a sense of purpose. The dialogue is equally strong, although sometimes the police meetings can become plodding, with everyone determined to say their piece. Whilst I appreciate James’ need for accuracy, there is sometimes something to be said for artistic license, and if ever there was an occasion to cut some dialogue, it’s here.

Overall this is a great novel that benefits from strong characterisation, an intriguing and virtually unguessable plot and more twists than a fairground ride. With plotting like this it is easy to see how James has managed to sell over 18 million Roy Grace novels around the world.