Crime fiction: Ghetto blasters on a road trip to their doom

Reviews: ‘Dodgers’, ‘Art in the Blood’, ‘Ghosts of the Desert’, ‘Girls on Fire’, ‘Nomad’

Brought back to life: Sherlock Holmes, played by Basil Rathbone. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

Brought back to life: Sherlock Holmes, played by Basil Rathbone. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

 

Bill Beverly’s Dodgers (No Exit Press, €19.50) is a road movie, a coming-of-age tale, a crime novel of gritty realism and a hugely impressive debut.

East is a 15-year-old lookout for his Uncle Fin’s crack den in LA’s Boxes; when the den is raided on his watch, East is ordered to drive 2,000 miles to Wisconsin, there to murder a witness in Fin’s upcoming trial.

Dressed in LA Dodgers baseball gear – “because white people love baseball, and the world is made of white people” – East and his fellow assassins embark on their quest, “running on luck and will and a supreme indifference to anything else”.

In other circumstances, East’s emotional intelligence would mark him out as a natural leader of men, but these teenage boys are, in the best tradition of noir, doomed even before they begin. Their road to nowhere diverts time and again into scenarios that might be blackly comic, given the boys’ ineptitude, ignorance of the world outside the ghetto, and their blithe faith in their immortality – if not for the chilling presence of Ty, East’s brother and an unrepentant stone-cold killer at the tender age of 13.

Comparisons with Richard Price’s Clockers are merited; Dodgers is an absorbing tale of young men brutalised by the world with very little opportunity to offer anything more than brutality in return.

Bonnie MacBird’s Art in the Blood (Collins Crime Club, €28.50), a Sherlock Holmes adventure, takes its title from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter: “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”

At a low ebb when the story opens, Holmes is revitalised when the French chanteuse Cherie La Victoire asks him to find her missing son. Soon Holmes and Watson are embroiled in a plot that involves stolen Greek statuary, the powerful Earl of Pellingham, and the abuse of children in northern England’s satanic mills.

MacBird delivers a fast-paced read in this faithful, full-blooded and breathlessly (albeit unevenly) plotted homage, although it’s her interpretation of Holmes that is the most intriguing aspect of the story. Watson declares from the beginning that Holmes’s artistic streak made him the greatest detective the world has ever known.

Here Holmes is an instinctive artist teetering on the edge of physical, emotional and psychological exhaustion, “tempestuous, changeable . . . and vulnerable to flights of fancy as well as fits of despair”, as the detective himself tells Cherie. That unusual vulnerability runs contrary to the canonical depiction of Holmes as an unfeeling, rational, virtually superhuman machine, and makes MacBird’s debut a welcome addition to the Holmes canon.

Norman, an anthropologist specialising in ghost towns, heads into the Utah desert at the beginning of Ryan Ireland’s Ghosts of the Desert (Point Blank, €14.20). He quickly finds himself at the mercy of a feral clan of mercenaries and killers led by Jacoby, a crude mystic who engages Norman in Socratic dialogues on the meaning of the universe.

With its echoes of Heart of Darkness, Ghosts of the Desert compares and contrasts the values of the ostensibly civilised Norman with those of the amoral savages of “Jacobyville”, although the lines drawn in the baking sand grow increasingly blurred as Norman, with escape impossible, gradually adapts to the life he is forced to live.

Ireland’s sparse but exhilarating use of language is entirely apt in capturing the austere environment while creating a hallucinatory effect: is Norman dead and experiencing a barren purgatory, or alive and trapped in an endless nightmare? The theme, setting and language evoke Cormac McCarthy at his most brutal, but Ghosts of the Desert is a neo-western epic of survivalism that deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Set in a small Pennsylvanian town in the early 1990s, Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire (Little, Brown, €17.99) is a Gothic take on the high-school revenge fantasy, as outsiders Lacey and Dex bond to the strains of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and plot the downfall of “bitch-goddess” Nikki Drummond, whose boyfriend killed himself in the nearby woods.

Wasserman tells the story of the “explosive” pairing of Dex and Lacey, who alternately narrate the tale in a feverish, breathless style that accentuates the overwrought intensity of the deadly duo’s excesses as they seek to alienate their peers, parents and the authorities.

The teens are too idealised to ring true, as they read Nietzsche and Kant, watch Kurosawa and Antonioni, and dream about celebrating birthday parties in graveyards. But then, the story itself is a deliberately lurid contemporary fairy tale, complete with witchcraft, satanism, dark incantations and psychological torture, a potent and occasionally shocking blend of cynicism, narcissism and nihilism.

James Swallow’s Nomad (Zaffre, €22.50) begins with a covert MI6 mission in Dunkirk targeting a radical Islamist group. The Nomad team is virtually wiped out, and sole survivor Marc Dane, a tech specialist, sets out to discover who betrayed his comrades.

A globetrotting affair that rushes us through Barcelona, London, Rome, Sicily, Turkey and New York, Nomad is a ferociously paced thriller, a high-concept tale of the solitary hero on the run, bristling with technology and frequently erupting into lethal violence. (The most obvious modern point of reference is Robert Ludlum, but John Buchan fans will recognise a trick or two.)

Told from a number of perspectives, including that of Halil, a teenager unaware he is being groomed for martyrdom, the story explores the off-the-grid world of shadowy arms dealers who supply the terrorists who make the headlines.

The relentless pace, and Swallow’s emphasis on plot twists and reversals, means that characterisation is at a minimum. But the author’s background in scriptwriting and videogames means that the tale is slick and sharply focused, as entertaining as it is improbable.

Declan Burke’s latest novel is The Lost and the Blind

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