Heavyweight authors such as Stephen King, Don Winslow and Dennis Lehane, together with a deluge of publishing insiders, critics and bloggers, have been waxing lyrical about the novel over the last few months having received their advanced reader copies – so many in fact that I was getting worried for McKinty that there wouldn’t be many readers left to actually buy the book following its release.
Fear not, for the buzz hasn’t stopped since its publication a couple of weeks ago and my purchase is another contribution to the royalty coffers. Readers of this site will know that I am a huge fan of McKinty, loving the rawness and nostalgia that comes from his Sean Duffy series and the brutal noir of his Michael Forsythe trilogy.
The Chain is a departure from his previous work, written more in the style of a commercial thriller to capture a wider scope of readers. The premise in a nutshell: Your phone rings. A stranger has kidnapped your child. To free them you must abduct someone else’s child. Your child will be released when your victim’s parents kidnap another child. If any of these things don’t happen, your child will be killed. You are now part of the chain.
A chilling start, and the best thing about the first half of The Chain is how McKinty’s trademark pace and tempo drives the story along. Rachel O’Neill, a mid-30s divorcee who is recovering from cancer, is the one who gets that dreaded phone call, informing her that her 13-year-old daughter Kylie has been kidnapped. Rachel acquires the support of ex-brother-in-law Pete, an Iraq war vet who has the weaponry and IT software knowledge to help her take on the people behind the chain.
Some reviewers have remarked about McKinty’s shift from crime novel to mainstream thriller here, but I’ve never been a fan of pigeon-holing books into genres that cover such vast material. The crossovers are inevitable. I’ve regarded all McKinty’s novels as ‘thrillers’, in that they are thrilling reads packed with thrilling action, and this work is no different.
It is heavily plot-driven of course, but it doesn’t come at the cost of losing any depth of characterisation. McKinty gives us short bursts of detail that bring the protagonists to life, that sharpen the edges. This is especially the case in the second half of the book that delves into the backstory of how the concept of the chain was formed and the people behind it. Although I won’t give much away for fear of spoilers, it is these darker elements to the story that really give the book that punchy, visceral McKinty feel.
The plot is reliant on several parents from a non-criminal background taking on, in turn, a string of unfamiliar and life-threatening tasks. Scouting and prepping a suitable hideaway, planning and successfully carrying out the ruthless kidnapping of a child, becoming proficient in the use of firearms, hiding evidence of their identities in all communications, covering their tracks physically and digitally, convincingly threatening the next parent in the chain, etc. In the hands of some authors, this might come across as slightly implausible, but McKinty is a safe pair of hands. His years of quality writing experience allow him to paint a vivid picture of what motivates his characters, in this case demonstrating that the besieged parents, suffering from the gut-wrenching pain of having their child taken from them, are driven by that very despair – and the guilt they will have to live with if they don’t pull this off – to stoop to whatever level is necessary to get their child back. A primeval force takes over.
As Rachel herself surmises: ‘Even an imbecile knows you don’t get between a grizzly-bear mama and her cub’
The Chain is a breath-taking read worthy of the hype surrounding it and no writer deserves the success more than McKinty (Paramount have already bought the film rights in a seven-figure deal). In recent interviews McKinty has revealed that – despite the critical acclaim and awards that his backlist has received – he was on the verge of quitting writing due to a lack of monetary return. This came as a surprise to me as I was under the impression that his standing as one of the top British crime writers meant he was doing pretty well earnings wise.
It says a lot about the state of the current publishing industry that such a talented and relatively high-profile author, whose books received coverage in the national press, was struggling to earn a living from the trade. No wonder he wanted to go down the route of producing a more commercially-orientated standalone – and thankfully it’s a belter.
Aside from the day job and promoting my noir thriller Back Door to Hell in recent months, I’ve still been finding time – as always – to read some riveting books.
So to give you a flavour of what I’d recommend at the cutting edge of contemporary crime fiction, below are some reviews I’ve posted for some of my favourite reads of 2019 so far…
Last Year’s Man, by Paul D. Brazill
I’ve always been fascinated by the ageing gangster/hitman theme and this slick and stylish noir thriller from Paul D. Brazill is a barnstorming success.
Tommy Bennett, feeling heat from the London law after a botched job, returns to his native north east (a nice nod to Get Carter) to lay low and regroup. But reconnecting with old underground acquaintances and family members is no easy thing, nor is dealing with a weakening bladder and increasing medication routines, and Tommy needs to show all his grit and resourcefulness to steer clear of dangerous old ghosts haunting him.
Structured within an easily digestible novella length, this is a breezy tale filled with Brazill’s familiar sharp, clipped dialogue. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud one-liners, while the cultural references are relevant and the violence is vivid. The free-flowing narrative makes this a really enjoyable read and a standout addition to this author’s extremely credible back catalogue.
Dread: The Art of Serial Killing, by Mark Ramsden
This smart, sharply observed thriller is a thoroughly entertaining and rewarding read.
Few main protagonists are as entrancing and depraved as the Dickens-obsessed Madden, a spy and a serial killer who’s spinning more than a few plates as he infiltrates a right-wing nationalist group.
Aside from the charismatic and twisted hero/anti-hero, the prose style is a real highlight to this book. Shifting in tone from despair to graphic with a slick rhythm and a healthy dose of perfectly pitched dark humour throughout, the author is effortlessly in control of where he’s steering you.
The tempo and style reminded me of the brutal yet eloquent noir of Matthew Stokoe in places. This is a read that you won’t forget in a hurry – highly recommended.
Townies: And Other Stories of Southern Mischief, by Eryk Pruitt
I love short story collections and I’ve come across some of Eryk Pruitt’s writing in a few crime anthologies, but this was my first experience of a whole book of his work.
His range is impressive – in terms of subject matter, characters and setting – and there’s something here for every fiction fan, from a humorous take on a vengeful tale about profiting via fantasy football to a cruel battle over a lawn mowing route.
The dialogue in every story is convincing and the themes explored – whether it’s violence, the threat of violence, desperation or redemption – are delivered with care an aplomb. Lots of showing not telling, lots of brutality and second guessing, this author has a lot of control over his writing and the stories had me entertained and, in some cases, spellbound.
Dead is Beautiful, by Jo Perry
The Charlie and Rose series has captured the hearts and imagination of many readers, and with this latest instalment it’s easy to see why.
Charlie and his ghostly canine companion Rose, both dead and existing in a surreal afterlife, return to LA in this new mystery crammed with hardened prose, dry humour, and of course dark, dark noir.
A mature tree is felled illegally, throwing the two protagonists into an investigation that leads to a murder and into the path of Charlie’s brother, who’s in danger and needs help. Charlie, who never got on with his sibling, is trapped in a state of melancholy for much of this tale and needs the good-natured and perceptive Rose by his side more than ever if he’s going to power through.
Exploring the city’s homelessness as well as its luxury mansions, this book has great range of setting and character. The profound tone of the story is complemented by the brusque writing style and existential backdrop, all played out with a shrewd, ironic edge.
Fahrenheit Press deserve great praise for putting their faith in this brave and accomplished series. ‘The coolest collection of hardboiled and experimental crime fiction on the planet’ is the blurb of imprint Fahrenheit 13 – on this evidence, that claim is being fulfilled in spades.
Death of an Angel, by Derek Farrell
Danny Bird’s fourth adventure, this book is woven with a delightfully smooth and engaging writing style that really hooks you in from the start.
The stakes are high for the main protagonist, a bar manager/amateur sleuth, as he attempts to solve a multi-layered mystery that is intricately plotted and laced with polished humour. Danny’s exploits see him exposed to a wide range of characters and settings, up against high-powered corruption as well as domestic and personal strife.
The prose has a gorgeous, warm flow to it that particularly appealed to me, while the story is skilfully structured as it builds to a fitting crescendo.
Like all good series books, Death of an Angel also works as a standalone, with the various twists and turns – all driven from, or towards, the heart of the main character – unravelled with masterful elegance.
Broken Dreams, by Nick Quantrill
Down-at-heel PI Joe Geraghty, scraping a living in the northern, isolated city of Hull, is hired by a local businessman to investigate a staff member’s unexplained absenteeism. The case soon leads Geraghty into the heart of a murder investigation that carries links to Frank Salford, a key businessman central to the city’s regeneration scheme who is also a ruthless gangland boss.
The pace of this book is strong from the start and the drama heightens nicely as the story unfolds and the stakes rise. Geraghty is a very well-drawn character, the naturalness of his mannerisms, behaviour, outlook and dialogue really flesh out the believability factor in him. So many authors try to make their characters appear real by homing in on their ‘normal’ qualities to make them likeable and it can feel too contrived, but everything about Geraghty – the good and the bad – comes across as authentic in an effortless way.
But there’s another major character that deserves a mention here – Hull itself. Reading the book from the perspective of someone who has never been there but has felt enriched by visiting many northern cities, including living in one for four years, I felt this was a real bonus in Broken Dreams. Getting to know the many parts of Hull, from its past as a fishing fortress to its modern-day cultural renaissance, and feeling its gritty core and warm soul contributes significantly to the success of this urban tour-de-force.[Top]
Highly revered author and jazz musician Mark Ramsden, writer of eight novels including The Sacred Blood and Dread – The Art of Serial Killing, gave Back Door to Hell a full five stars in his review on Goodreads.
He wrote: ‘Thrills, spills, emotional depth. Back Door to Hell’s fugitive couple have rightly drawn some comparisons with True Romance . . . this is as exciting as a Quentin Tarantino script.’
‘Events unfold realistically rather than for effect or as an homage. There’s accurate social commentary, good sense of place. This does not take place in an alternative comic book universe: Back Door to Hell is real,’ he added.
‘Very soon after starting you have to know what happens next. Which isn’t what you thought it would be yet makes perfect sense. Highly recommended.’
Another review written by US-based crime fiction aficionado Nicola Parry said: ‘This is a great read.’
‘Paul Gadsby reeled me into this story with a relaxed writing tone that kind of left me feeling like I was an onlooker in it, watching the crime play out . . . I dare you not to be rooting for this crime duo as they trip around England, trying to avoid the consequences of their actions.’
‘I don’t know why, but all the way through this book, I could hear Pulp’s ‘Common People’ playing in my head.’
‘Overall, it’s brilliant, harrowing, and poignant. It’ll definitely leave you wanting more.’
Another reviewer on Amazon wrote: ‘Back Door to Hell takes us on a journey from South London to The Lakes, The North Sea Coast and back again at breakneck speed in the company of two engaging young anti-heroes.
‘If George Pelecanos had come from this side of the Atlantic, his prose would sound like this … Gadsby’s attention to detail and character development within a crisply executed story cannot be faulted.’[Top]
More rave reviews have been flooding in for my noir thriller Back Door to Hell.
After an initial burst of positive feedback from critics and fans on publication by Fahrenheit Press, the novel has received a further batch of excellent reviews from all corners of the globe.
Critically-acclaimed crime author Aidan Thorn called the book ‘A very British True Romance’ in his review posted on the Fahrenheit website.
‘So much to enjoy here,’ he added. ‘The relationship between the two young thieves, reminiscent of Clarence and Alabama in True Romance, the depth to the often neglected bad guy, Crawford, with a glimpse into his home life. All of that is wrapped in a cat and mouse that despite the depth remains tense and interesting.’
Over on AustCrime, a website based in Australia that focuses on Australasian crime fiction as well as books from around the world, Gordon Duncan wrote: ‘Back Door To Hell really stands out.’
‘The story of boy meets girl, boy is convinced by the girl to take part in a robbery, all does not go to plan and boy and girl go on the run seems on the surface to be a familiar one, there are however many more layers to this excellent noir novel.’
‘Nate and Jen . . . not only need to trust each other, they must also decide who else to trust if they are to survive. I highly recommend reading Back Door To Hell to find out if they do.’
On The Irresponsible Reader blog, based in Idaho, USA, HC Newton said of the novel: ‘This is a fast-moving book, and the pages just melt away . . . It’ll draw you in and keep you riveted through all the twists and turns. And each time you start to think you know what’s going to happen, Gadsby will tell you that you’re wrong. And then he’ll throw a curveball at you.’
‘This is a treat folks, you’d do well to indulge.’[Top]
My newly-released noir thriller Back Door to Hell is going down a storm with crime fiction critics and fans.
Early reviews have praised the novel’s pace, characterisation and the tense storyline which keeps readers on the edge of their seat until the end.
American freelance writer and book reviewer Brian Greene posted a review on the highly revered website Criminal Element, labelling Back Door to Hell ‘an exhilarating thriller’ and ‘a novel that seems ripe for film adaptation.’
He adds: ‘What sets Back Door to Hell apart is its naturalness… While other contemporary crime fiction scribes go out of their way to make sure their books have the fashionable noir qualities, there’s no such affectation in Gadsby’s work. His characters are believable, his storylines are interesting, and his writing is organic. And he excels at revealing the multiple dimensions of his characters’ life situations and internal makeup.’
Meanwhile on another illustrious crime website, Crime Fiction Lover, reviewer Louis Bravos said the novel was a ‘brilliant slice of British noir which packs a lot of punch and says a lot about modern-day Britain.’
His review adds: ‘Back Door To Hell is as tense and edge of your seat as any heist novel, packing a lot into 200 pages plus change. What really separates it from others in the genre is how believable and contemporary it is.’
Over on Goodreads, one reviewer said: ‘The action & plot twists alone are enough to keep you turning the pages… The prose is smooth & clean with enough detail to provide atmosphere but never at the expense of pace… As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think ahead & wonder how it would end. There are several choices, at least one of which would have been disappointingly unrealistic. Thankfully, the author chose an ending that is sobering yet oddly hopeful. And now I have a new (to me) author to follow.’
The reviews on Amazon have also been extremely positive. One review said: ‘Fast moving story well written. Couldn’t put it down for wanting to find out the next twist and turn. Lots of action with plausible characters.’
Another wrote: ‘What a great book, fast, pacey, I couldn’t put it down. I would highly recommend it, you won’t be disappointed,’ while another said: ‘A fabulous read! I was engrossed in the story and really rooted for the main 2 characters. I highly recommend this book.’
‘A thrilling read from start to finish,’ wrote another. ‘A great plot and moments of genuine tension throughout with a climax that plays on the emotions. Gadsby sets the scene from the mean streets of south-east London to a cross-country chase superbly. A real page-turner.’
The popular, award-winning ‘Beardy Book Blogger’ also loved the novel, saying it was ‘a true rollercoaster of a book. It is short and to the point and really draws you into the story. There is no dead air here; Paul Gadsby keeps the pace high and the tension is palpable throughout.’
Click here for more details about Back Door to Hell and how to buy direct from publisher Fahrenheit Press.[Top]
My debut crime thriller, a fictional account of the real-life theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy from Westminster Central Hall in 1966, was reviewed by footballbookreviews.com, a website that delivers passionate coverage of original, thought-provoking and independent football-related literature in various forms.
The review adds to the overwhelmingly positive reception Chasing the Game has received since its release in 2014. A summary of how the novel has been received by literary critics, including media reviewers and established crime fiction bloggers, can be found here, while a round-up of what readers think of the book is available by clicking here.
The full review of Chasing the Game by footballbookreviews.com can be found here, but segments of it are below:
“In Chasing the Game Paul Gadsby provides a fictional account of the events around the robbery and the subsequent recovery of the trophy. As such the football element is only a minor thread in a book which is essentially a crime thriller.
“Gadsby provides an atmospheric depiction of London in the 1960s, where gangster Dale Blake is battling with discontentment amongst the ranks and an unhappy home life. The theft of the trophy and the hoped-for ransom money are seen by Dale as a way to sort out the problems he is encountering in his life.
“This is a read which is in parts gritty as it explores the murky world of gangsters, but which also has a softer side as it explores through the central character Dale a number of areas including family relationships, leadership, power and respect… Gadsby provides an entertaining and well-paced read in relation to a fictional exploration of the events in London before England’s finest footballing hour.”[Top]
One of Britain’s biggest crime fiction websites, Crime Fiction Lover, has followed in the footsteps of other leading media sources by awarding my debut novel Chasing the Game with an excellent review.
Led by a team of expert contributors and critics within the genre, Crime Fiction Lover is one of the most firmly established and well-respected websites around, covering news, reviews and features across a wide range of crime from atmospheric noir and thriller mysteries to hardboiled detectives and police procedurals.
Reviewer David Prestidge read Chasing the Game, my fictional depiction of the real-life theft of the World Cup trophy in London in 1966, and the full review can be found here.
Amongst his comments, David wrote that the story provides ‘a mixture of criminal incompetence, jealousy and black comedy, which presents itself as a plausible account of one of Britain’s greatest unsolved mysteries.’
He added: ‘This is a London where the smart boys smoke Dunhills because the slimline pack doesn’t spoil the cut of their suit jackets, a Mark II Ford Cortina could just about take a man’s breath away, and Michael Caine was doing something similar to young women with his screen portrayal of the amoral Alfie.
‘I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The prose is unpretentious, brisk, and will move the reader through the 200-odd pages with minimal effort. Gadsby has taken a real-life event that remains a mystery to this day, and provided a perfectly plausible, well-timed and entertaining fictional account.’
This write-up of Chasing the Game comes after further glowing reviews greeted the book’s release, not least from the highly-revered Crime Time website as well as critically acclaimed author Guy Portman and blogger ‘Book Addict Shaun’.
So far on Amazon, the book has attracted eight reviews; seven of them 5 star and one 4 star.
To read more about Chasing the Game and the true crime that influenced its narrative, please click here.[Top]
My debut novel Chasing the Game has received a glowing review from – among others – the highly-revered Crime Time website.
Just days after its release, the book was reviewed by Crime Time contributor Brian Greene and the full review can be read by clicking here.
Amongst his comments, Brian wrote: ‘There’s much to like about this, Gadsby’s first novel. The characters are believable, the storyline is compelling, and Gadsby excels at balancing the various subplots.
‘As you read along you’re just as intrigued to find out what will become of Blake’s personal life as you are to see what will go down with the firm and with the consequences of the trophy heist. The author never makes the mistake (too often seen in recently-written edgy crime novels) of toiling at making his characters come off as hard – he just shows them as they are and places them in interesting situations, and that’s enough to make you care.’
Crime Time previously ran as a popular magazine, running for 54 issues before reverting to a pure online source of crime news, features and reviews in 2008. Edited by Barry Forshaw, widely regarded as the UK’s leading expert on crime fiction having written many books on the subject, Crime Time is hugely popular and known for reviewing the best crime fiction in the UK and around the world.
Esteemed novelist James Sallis once said about Crime Time: ‘This is what the rest of the magazines want to be when they grow up.’
This review comes hot on the heels of the book’s hugely positive review by critically acclaimed author Guy Portman, which can be read in full here.
Amongst Guy’s comments, he wrote: ‘The story skilfully merges fiction and the real life events surrounding the actual theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1966. This is a fast paced mystery with an atmospheric setting that succeeds in depositing the reader into the vibrant, rapidly changing London of the 1960s.
‘The reader is able to identify with protagonist, Dale, despite his criminality, due to his sympathetic nature and a problematic personal life that entails a declining relationship with wife Sheryl, a runaway teenage son, and a father in prison.
‘Chasing The Game is compelling, original and eminently readable, with an unpredictable plot. The book will appeal to all mystery and crime aficionados.’
Chasing the Game was also highly praised on the ‘Book Addict Shaun’ blog, which can be read in full here.
Amongst Shaun’s comments, he wrote: ‘The setting of 1960s London was felt throughout the book. The city was definitely brought to life here. And the book had a strong cast of believable characters. Yes it’s a book partly about football but you don’t need to be a massive football fan to enjoy the book. It’s also about friendships, relationships and internal conflicts within a firm and we all know how the real life ones usually turn out so the fictionalised one here was very enjoyable.
‘The writing in the book is incredibly strong too. It was also a very gripping read which once your start you won’t want to put it down. I’ve already had my dad asking me if I’ve read it yet as he wants to read it too. Overall a very enjoyable book, definitely something a bit different to what’s out there at the minute and a book I highly recommend. Will definitely be keeping an eye out for more from this author.’[Top]
Synopsis: Joe Coughlin is nineteen when he meets Emma Gould. A small-time thief in 1920s Boston, he is told to cuff her while his accomplices raid the casino she works for. But Joe falls in love with Emma – and his life changes for ever.
That meeting is the beginning of Joe’s journey to becoming one of the nation’s most feared and respected gangsters. It is a journey beset by violence, double-crossing, drama and pain. And it is a journey into the soul of prohibition-era America…
Review: Live By Night was an important book for Dennis Lehane. His tenth novel, written in 2012, it was both a follow-up (but not a direct sequel) to his 2008 epic The Given Day and penned around the time his TV writing career was really taking off. His work on HBO’s worldwide hit The Wire had earned him a call-up to the writing team of the highly-acclaimed Boardwalk Empire, another HBO success.
There were questions, from fans and critics alike, that Live By Night would therefore answer. Did Lehane still have the taste, and passion, for a powerful literary work? Did he still have the time to produce one? Would Live By Night (with its 1920s east coast gangster setting – the same backdrop as Boardwalk) be just a simple extension of the themes explored in that show?
Since making his commercial breakthrough in the early 1990s, hailed as part of a trio of new-age American crime writers with George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly, Lehane’s literary career has soared.
His first five books featured quirky detective duo Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro in modern-day Boston, but his next effort, Mystic River, catapulted him into the major leagues, the novel being turned into a film starring Sean Penn and directed by Clint Eastwood. Psychological thriller Shutter Island followed (also adapted into a film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese).
The Given Day was his first foray into historical fiction, exploring the 1919 Boston Police Strike and its dramatic aftermath, and my initial impression of Live By Night was that Lehane had once again successfully employed his gloriously muscular, confident prose that dominated his other books.
We’re thrust into the 1920s; prohibition is rife, opening the floodgates for bootleggers, gangsters and corrupt police to line their pockets. Police captain’s son Joe Coughlin, just 19, has a taste for living on the criminal side of the moral line, and an even bigger taste for Emma Gould, the girlfriend of veteran gangster Albert White. Joe and Emma begin an affair that is as clandestine as it is passionate, and it’s here, in the book’s early stages, where Lehane’s engrossing style leaps from the page.
The dialogue between Joe and Emma is as witty and sharp to draw comparisons with the Coen brothers’ script for Miller’s Crossing, while Lehane expertly paints a vivid picture of the age but never once allows the pace of the story to slip into second place. History is merely a backdrop; Lehane’s extensive research doesn’t blunt the sweeping narrative, allowing the evocative characters and the crisp dialogue to bring the book to life.
We don’t have to wait long for something to go wrong. Joe’s outlaw instincts draw him and a small gang into a bank robbery. But their escape plan is botched, and Joe is forced to go on the run from the police. He goes back for Emma in the hope of seeing them elope together, but this is tough, merciless noir and Joe’s plans – and more literally his beaten body – end up in the gutter before he’s arrested.
Serving a lengthy prison sentence, we experience Joe’s intense struggle for survival in a desperate, cut-throat environment. With Lehane’s skill, this is a haunting passage within the book and we’re totally convinced by the authenticity of rival mobbed-up inmates and their internal war, and Joe’s dilemma of which side to pick in order to survive.
But despite the prose being laced with Lehane’s usual stark, atmospheric edge, this section of the book for me slightly disappoints. The problem with widespread narratives that cover a large part of the main protagonist’s life (we’re living Joe’s epic journey from a cheeky 19-year-old to one of the USA’s most dominant and influential gangsters) is that, in crime fiction, these often encompass prison time. Joe is sentenced to five years and serves more than two, but the necessity to move on to his career after prison results in this stage of his life feeling a tad rushed. The format, to avoid the book ending up with an absurd word count, drives the narrative here.
Even though we get plenty of value in the relatively short prison sequence and experience Joe’s troubles and anguish close up, it doesn’t feel like we’ve lived over two long hard years behind bars with him by the time he gets out. To Joe, the bleak brutality of those years would have felt like half a lifetime. The structure of the book’s scope works against the author here, but Lehane isn’t the first crime writer to find it tough to effectively convey a long prison sentence on their main character within a small portion of a novel, however he comes closer than most to cracking it.
A pure delight we do get from this spell in Joe’s life, however, is the growing significance of his strained relationship with his father, Thomas. The book is written in the third person and we’re treated to some scenes from Thomas’s perspective. Complex father-son bonds are a particular strength of Lehane’s and here we get some real pearls of great writing. ‘Joseph was the most open of his sons. You could see his heart through the heaviest winter coat.’
Having been forced to link up with a dominant crime boss to survive prison, Joe is sent by the mob to Florida on his release to run the rum-smuggling syndicate they have going. He flourishes in his seniority, making the mob – and himself – a huge amount of money. He meets a girl too, a member of the Cuban émigré community whose world he immerses himself in, and his personal life begins to give him the inner equilibrium he perhaps deserves but, once again, this is noir – and heartbreak is never far away.
Live By Night fully merits its tour-de-force marketing tag. It’s another success for Lehane, earning virtuous distinction from his mounting TV work, and for us readers it’s another chance to enjoy his graceful, sassy prose set within a deeply moving novel.
My rating: 9/10
Note: This review first appeared as a guest book review on Morgen Bailey’s Writing Blog[Top]
American writer Joe McGinniss produced a highly acclaimed body of work, both fiction and non-fiction, before his death on 10 March 2014 at the age of 71.
He enjoyed an immediate commercial breakthrough with his debut release, The Selling of the President 1968, a powerful work that described the stage-managed, theatrical marketing of Richard Nixon in that year’s presidential campaign and landed on The New York Times bestseller list.
Many successful books followed, most notably his controversial true-crime book Fatal Vision, but the one that stood out for me was his wonderfully charming exploration of Italian football, The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, published in 1999. Part travel memoir, part sporting analysis, part cultural discovery, it was, perhaps unintentionally at its outset, a project that covered a particularly wide literary scope. When I heard of McGinniss’ death earlier this week, this book was the first thing that sprang to mind.
McGinniss wasn’t a lifelong fan of the beautiful game (or ‘soccer’ as he’d have called it) by any means, falling in love with the sport at the 1994 World Cup, staged in his own country. He soon became obsessed with the cultural significance of the game in Italy, transfixed by the religious-like passion of the fans, their fierce devotion to their local village, town or city, and how their football team serves as a proud representation of that community and its values.
He read about something bizarre – miraculous even – that took place in Italy during the 1995-96 season. The team from the humble, rustic village of Castel Di Sangro had secured a highly unlikely promotion to Serie B, the country’s second division. A league normally the preserve of firmly established city-based teams or those clubs from large towns with financial (often industrial) backing, it was five divisions higher than Castel Di Sangro’s natural level. They were now punching above their weight to a degree that was as nearly comical as it was fascinating.
The talk ahead of the 1996-97 season was, therefore, whether this small (tiny in this context) provincial club could survive in the harsh, cold-blooded professionalism of Serie B. Could they avoid relegation and create a second miracle? McGinniss wanted to find out – and he wanted a front-row seat.
He packed his suitcase and headed for the Abruzzo region in central Italy, leaving his life in the States behind to spend the whole season in a rented apartment in the heart of Castel Di Sangro.
With the village having a population of just over 5,000, McGinniss placed himself at the centre of the community, embracing the warmth, fortitude and pride of the locals, who treated the players and coaching staff as family, and in turn McGinniss was welcomed by the villagers with open arms.
As his mission to closely follow the team through their tough series of matches (both home and away) progressed, McGinniss really bought into the emotion of Castel Di Sangro’s fight, their quest for ‘la salvezza’, enriching his deepening passion for the game in the process.
He learnt Italian and gained increasing access to the players and management staff, harnessing a greater understanding of their motivations and lives. Centre-back Davide Cei, for example, was studying The Great Gatsby and was especially concerned with learning the precise location of West Egg, while readers were treated to a stark impression of authoritarian head coach Osvaldo Jaconi, who banned his players from eating garlic and stubbornly only ever uttered one English phrase: ‘I bulldozer’.
It wasn’t long before McGinniss located a darker side to this fairytale. The club’s owner, Pietro Rezza, with his long cigars and lines of bodyguards, was a big player in the village and it was clear that the locals feared him and his shady reputation. In the book McGinniss claimed that Rezza, a compelling character who could have fitted seamlessly into any scene of the first couple of Godfather films, baulked at paying the team promised bonuses and refused to invest in buying quality players or building a stadium befitting their Serie B status, despite apparently having access to the required funds.
Life in the village got even more dramatic as the long, hard season intensified. Two young players died in a car accident that sent shockwaves and heartbreak throughout the village, and after having a cosy evening meal in the home of veteran player Gigi Prete and his alluring Chilean wife, McGinniss later learned of the pair’s arrest in connection with a cocaine smuggling ring.
Relations between McGinniss and the club became more strained, much of it caused by the author brazenly airing his thoughts on team selection and tactics in front of the club’s staff and the locals on a frequent basis. Rezza, a man who clearly valued his privacy, didn’t take kindly to the American writer sticking his nose in. He wasn’t alone, either. Jaconi and some of the players dropped hints to McGinniss (some more heavily than others) that he should back off.
It’s these passages of the book that picked up most of its criticism. Written from McGinniss’ perspective of course, and perhaps with a predominantly American audience in mind, his take on football and his understanding of the practical elements of the game didn’t come from a basis of spending a lifetime following it. Devoted long-time fans of the game can get immensely frustrated when they read a football-related text that’s written by someone who knows less about the sport than them. But for me McGinniss’ relatively untrained eye offered a fresh context to this book that seasoned fans or journalists couldn’t provide. Not every football literary work has to be penned by someone who’s lost count of how many long winter evenings they’ve endured freezing in the stands and whinging about the shoddy food and the ineffective use of the 4-2-3-1 formation.
The troubled relationship between McGinniss and the club reached an almighty climax as Castel Di Sangro played their final away match of the season down in the southern city of Bari. The hosts required a victory to reach Serie A. McGinniss, repeatedly advised to stay at home for this one, noticed a change in the players’ behaviour in the hours leading up to kick-off as they made the journey south. He overheard a poolside conversation between some of the players at a beachfront hotel that exposed a shocking and crooked element to the forthcoming match, and McGinniss couldn’t keep his cool. The bond of trust between McGinniss and the club, stretching throughout the season, snapped spectacularly, and could never recover.
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro was written by a writer; not a football fan or journalist who wanted to write a book. It came out around a time when a glut of football-travel books were hitting the bookshelves, including two set in Italy; Greg Burke’s Parma: A Year in Serie A and A Season with Verona by Tim Parks. McGinniss’ book stood out from the crowd because he successfully framed an engaging narrative woven from what was happening around him; the politics, the passion, the corruption and the tragedy.
Maybe it wasn’t his place to claim he could pick a better starting eleven than the coach, and it’s understandable that some readers saw this behaviour as sanctimonious, but the book was never marketed as a tactical overview by an expert. Although structured chronologically (which makes the whole thing very readable), the skilled prose sucks you into the story. Rather than dwelling on the darker moments, McGinniss keeps the pace motoring along, always identifying with the team’s fight for survival throughout all the ordeals that confront the characters.
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro goes way beyond football but, because all the lies, deception, scandal, heartbreak and joy are fundamentally linked to the team’s on-field objective, it succeeds in magnifying the game’s importance at the same time.
McGinniss wasn’t an expert on football tactics, or even decorum within a close-knit team setting, but he was an expert at writing. His shrewd style and the enthralling tale he fashioned made for a compelling book that, after reading it on its release, I have never forgotten.[Top]