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Thursday 8 June 2023

HARRY'S GAME - book review


Gerald Seymour’s debut novel Harry’s Game (1975) hit the ground running. It’s an accomplished piece of work for a first novel and established him as a top rank thriller writer, and he has yet to disappoint me – though some of his books have a downbeat ending – a reflection of life, of course, though I prefer my fiction to end upbeat.

It’s contemporary – 1974. A British minister is cold-bloodedly shot down in the street in plain view of his children and wife, and the IRA perpetrator gets away. The PM decides that rather than use the regular forces in the mainland and in Northern Ireland, he wants a man-hunter unaffiliated to any official organisation. Of several candidates available, Captain Harry James Brown is selected, flown back from Germany and undergoes three weeks training in Dorset before being sent to Belfast where he is to blend in and attempt to track the shooter and either arrange for his capture or death.

The shooter is Billy Downs. For no good reason Seymour refers to him as ‘the man’ for a considerable chunk of the book. Downs is married with children.

Seymour brings a mass of knowledge and detail concerning the IRA hierarchy, ‘the troubles’, the army in place, and the citizens on both sides of the religious divide. At the time the IRA has suffered several setbacks, with a number of leaders imprisoned, and now rules through fear in order to deter informers. This aspect is conveyed very well indeed.

To a certain extent, Harry views his tracking of Downs similar to a game of chess: some pawns – unsuspecting innocents – might be sacrificed, but the end result is justified. He has no qualms about eliminating a cold-blooded murderer. The danger is real, however: if he is caught by the IRA, he will be tortured and killed – and prove an embarrassment to the British government. Tension builds up to the end of the book.

Cold. Clinical. Thrilling.

Wednesday 7 June 2023



Ray Bradbury’s non-fantasy novel Death is a Lonely Business was published in 1985.

It might not be fantasy, but it’s pure Bradbury in its style, descriptions, characterisations, humour and pathos and nostalgia. The noir detective story is dedicated to the memory of Chandler, Hammett, Cain and Ross MacDonald, among others.

It’s a first-person narrative by an unnamed struggling fantasy and science-fiction writer in Venice, California, in July, 1949, which seems plagued by fog at this time of year.

‘During the night, the fog thickened and way out in the bay somewhere sunk and lost, a foghorn blew and blew again. It sounded like a great sea beast long dead and heading for its own grave away from shore, mourning along the way, with no one to care or follow’ (p19). This passage alludes to one of Bradbury’s famous short stories, ‘The Fog Horn’. He returns to the fog horn beast later: ‘You are left stranded on a cold dune with an empty typewriter, an abandoned bank account, and a half-warm bed. You expect the submersible beast to rise some night while you sleep. To get rid of him you get up at three AM and write a story about him, but don’t send it out to any magazines for years because you are afraid. Not Death, but Rejection in Venice, is what Thomas Mann should have written about’ (p50).

The story begins late at night when he is travelling on public transport and a passenger breathes on his neck from behind and whispers ‘Death is a lonely business’. He is so scared he doesn’t risk looking at the owner of the voice. And then the man is gone. On his way home, our narrator discovers a dead body in the canal. At the scene he meets detective Elmo Crumley; their paths are going to cross often, in two more books, in fact. Crumley ‘tilted his head now this way to look at me, and then tiled it the other way, like a monkey in the zoo staring out through the bars and wondering what the hell that beast is here outside’ (p54). Crumley’s heart is in the right place and takes a shine to our narrator, happy to compare notes. He says, ‘You know, I wish I could bring all the rot I see every week here and use it for mulch. Boy, what roses I’d grow!’ (p84). At one point Crumley uses the phrase ‘Long after midnight’ during a hypnotising session (p192) – which just happens to be the title of a Bradbury collection of stories. Bradbury named his detective after the crime author James Crumley, in tribute.

Later, the narrator is haunted by that phrase – and decides it will make a good title for a book. To make matters worse, he has caught a cold and his sense of smell has deserted him.

He is drawn to do a little bit of investigating and enters the rooming house of the deceased. Upstairs is the ‘canaries for sale’ lady, seemingly confined to her bed – a modern Miss Havisham, who possessed a ‘tiny yellowed head’: ‘She lay flat and strewn out so delicately I could not believe it was a living creature, but only a fossil undisturbed by eternity’s tread’ (p27).

There is a creeping suspenseful menace about the narrative. More than one person described the sensation of a person waiting outside their bedroom door. ‘… but what if one night whoever it was came into the room?  And brought his lonely business with him?’ (p33).

We meet a number of fascinating and even eccentric characters, including Cora Smith, who called herself Fannie Florianna. Grossly overweight, she is now a retired opera singer of some renown. Then there was the old lady  ‘who spun the pink cotton candy machine and sold illusion that melted in your mouth and left you hungry long before Chinese food’ (p73).  And Mr Shapeshade and Mr A.L. Shrank, a strange ‘shrink’. And Cal, the atrocious demon barber: ‘…cut hair so you looked as if  you’d been blown dry by a Kansas twister and combed by a maniac wheat harvester run amok’ (p109). And Constance Rattigan, the movie idol in her sixties: ‘I guess I have too many producers’ fingerprints on my skin’ (p138). And the matinee idol John Wilkes Hopwood who ‘threw his head back with that merciless grin that flashed sabres and promised steel. He laughed silently, in honour of the old days, before films talked’ (p160).

Bradbury makes many observations that catch the mood or the period: ‘Silence. And the sound that waiting makes on the telephone line’ (p62). Maybe that’s why we started getting plagued with canned music while we waited; silence was too terrible? Here’s another: ‘The car windshield was like a great eye, weeping and drying itself, weeping again, as the wipers shuttled and stopped, shuttled and stopped and squeaked to shuttle again’ (p113).

The narrator has a box beside his typewriter, where he keeps his ideas; ideas that spoke to him, telling him where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do. ‘So my stories got written. Sometimes it was a dog that needed to dig a graveyard. Sometimes it was a time machine that had to go backwards. Sometimes it was a man with green wings who had to fly at night lest he be seen…’ (p118). And he sells a tale to Bizarre Tales about a man ‘who feared the wind that had followed him around the world from the Himalayas and now shook his house late at night, hungry for his soul’ (p120).

There are a number of deaths before the end, most of them poignant and tragic.

As hinted, there is a measure of autobiography here as Bradbury lived in the area described until 1950; and this is where he wrote his early stories which began to establish his fame.

The cover is appropriate.

Two sequels follow: A Graveyard for Lunatics and Let’s All Kill Constance.

This is my review of A Graveyard for Lunatics, which clearly I read out of sequence:

WRITEALOT: Book review - A Graveyard for Lunatics (

Tuesday 6 June 2023

THE INNOCENT - Book review


Harlan Coben’s 2005 thriller is as good as any of the other standalone novels of his I have read. He keeps you turning the pages as the plot twists and characters interact.

It begins with a flashback of Matt Hunter’s. He was involved in a brawl and his opponent died. It might have been an accident; Matt served four years in a penitentiary. When he got out, he joined his brother’s law firm and met the beautiful Olivia and they married. Everything was better than he could have hoped – until he received a mysterious phone call and his life began to spiral out of control.

Besides contending with a local cop who held a grudge, Matt has to cope with the suspicion that Olivia is having an affair with a stranger. And it seems that Matt is of considerable interest to two certain not particularly scrupulous FBI agents…

‘Matt realised that he needed the help of a private detective at the MVD agency. ‘By and large, Matt was not a fan of PIs. In fiction they were cool dudes. In reality they were, at best, retired (emphasis on the ‘tired’) cops, and at worst, guys who couldn’t become cops and thus are that dangerous creation known as the “cop wannabe”. Matt had seen plenty of wannabes working as prison guards. The mixture of failure and imagined testosterone produced volatile and often ugly consequences’ (p69).

However this PI was an exception: ‘the lovely and controversial Ms Cingle Shaker.' He tasked her with finding out about the anonymous phone caller… ‘…she wore a black turtleneck that on some women would be considered clingy but on Cingle could legitimately draw a citation for indecency’ (p70).

The past catches up in ways we hadn’t guessed at in our wildest imaginings. A past that tests his love for his wife.

To comment further would require spoilers. So, in conclusion, this is a complex tale, well told!

If you’ve read Coben already, you know what to expect – twists and surprises; if you haven’t, this is as good a place as any to make your acquaintance with his work.

As book covers go, this is atrocious in my opinion.